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Aged by Alzheimer's but still young at heart

I've heard it said that it's not the years in your life that count, it's the life in your years.

I thought about this as I entered the memory-care facility to celebrate another year of love and laughter with my mother, Rose Beebe. I excitedly bounded into her room and plopped down on the bed beside her.

"Rose, it's your birthday today - you're 88!"

"Eighty-eight months?" she asks with complete seriousness.

"No, Mom, 88 years old."

"Wow, that's a lot of times across the world," she says, smiling.

She looks adorable in a hip new outfit my sister got her for this special occasion. Mom never let her hair go grey, so she never seemed old to me. She could easily pass for early 70s. I ask her what it feels like to be 88.

"Well, I'm not worn out, but I'm old," she said. "I'm so old I'm ancient. Sometimes I feel young for some reason. I don't know why."

I help Mom up and her age becomes evident. She is feeble, taking small steps. She reminds me of an unsteady toddler who has just learned to walk, except a toddler doesn't have far to fall. We slowly walk down the hall to her party.

Mom is excited to see her kids, grandkids and friends, even though she doesn't recognize most of her guests. We sit down and gather around her, and she instantly becomes the life of the party - a senior showgirl serenading us with her favorite song.

"California here we come, right back where we started from. La, da, da, da, da-dee-dum, California, here we come," she belts out, clapping her hands. (Mom has never been able to recall the third line and now I can't even remember it.)

We applaud and she lights up, delighted to be the center of attention. So she sings the song again. And again. And again.

My brother, Tim, asks her if she knows the song "Tom Dooley" and she immediately breaks into the chorus. After a few rounds Mom declares, "I'm Tom Dooley's wife." We roar with laughter. She is like a silly little girl.

Tim redirects Mom from her marathon concert with a random question. "Mom, do you think people should get married?" (She was married for 47 years, he's twice divorced.)

Without missing a beat she says, "Well, I didn't get married. All of my kids came from heaven." Her quick response elicits giggles all around the table. With her keen sense of humor still intact, she is spot on today.

Mom definitely is in heaven being surrounded by her kids and grandkids. She can feel our love and we are soaking up hers, treasuring every bit while we can.

After cake and presents, Mom starts to tire. I take her back to her room and crawl into bed with her. She looks off into the distance, becoming pensive. I grab my pen and paper. These are very special occasions, because I know Mom will tap into her 88 years of wisdom. She expounds on her favorite subject: her kids.

"They were coming along pretty fast and when I'd find out I was pregnant I'd wonder, 'What am I going to do?' And I said, 'I'm just going to love them gently.' I was so glad to get them out and see them."

Her concentration deepens. "I think about my kids and go clear through their bodies, and how they look and how they talk. Not too many people love their kids the way I did."

"Aw, I love you, Mom," I say, squeezing her hand and savoring this precious moment.

After a few seconds of silence she looks me in the eye and says, "What if I died?"

Not wanting to ponder Mom's question, I blurt out, "I will still love you and we will still talk."

"We will?" she says, cocking her head.

Before I can answer she asserts, "I'm not going to die for a long time because we have more fun to have."

"OK," I say, "I love you lots."

"I love you millions of lots - millions and millions and millions," Mom says, patting my face.

Alzheimer's may be slowly ravaging my mother's brain, but it will never penetrate her heart. Not a chance. Eighty-nine, here we come.

Editor's note: In Lisa Moore's column, "Generations," she writes about the challenges and healing she experiences as a member of the Sandwich Generation: those caring for a parent and a child.