I once read that memory is what forms one’s identity. It contains one’s life narrative. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s means a person loses the ability to remember, but does she then cease to exist?
While you learn to adjust and accept that all the long-cherished memories you’ve shared must be relinquished, you realize you only have the present moment to share. This has to be enough. Memory may be lost with Alzheimer’s, but touch and physical connection are still there.
Recently, I visited my mom in Israel. It has been four years since the memory-snatching thief called Alzheimer’s took away her ability to recognize and remember all those who love and care for her.
I travel to Israel at least three times a year to visit with my mother. I take her out for walks in her wheelchair. I talk to her and tell her stories about all the members of the family.
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Rarely will she smile, or speak, but I try to imagine our discussions about her great-grandchildren in America – sadly, she’s never met them. I kiss her a lot because I believe they will convey my affection to her when words fail. Those kisses seal our mother-daughter bond.
During my last few visits, she was very sleepy and barely reacted to my presence. During our short stroll, I pushed her wheelchair around a large bird cage in her senior home. I was hoping that the birds’ chirping would trigger some reaction to awaken her. Upon reaching the cage, I noticed a sign.
It was from Psalms 84:3: “Also a bird has found a home and a Passer has a nest.”
The name in Hebrew for the Passer bird is “Dror,” meaning “freedom.”
At first glance, it seemed paradoxical: A bird held captive in a cage with a sign proclaiming freedom just did not make any sense.
But it made me wonder: Is my mother’s mind like the bird, since it exists in a cage?
On our last visit before I returned to New Jersey, I sat with my mom and told her that I was about to leave. I gently explained that I would not see her for several months.
I showered her with kisses, sang her some songs, and massaged her hands. When I gently and lovingly placed her hands back into her lap, I noticed that she was struggling to move her hands back toward mine.
I moved my right hand closer to hers, and with much effort she grabbed my fingers. I know that tiny movement to initiate the contact took a lot of effort for her, and I loved that she was reaching out for me.
I have recalled and replayed this one single action of hers hundreds of times since.
My tears were overflowing my eyes from this wonderful parting gift.
Later, in the cab to the airport, the verse from Psalm 84 suddenly made so much sense.
Freedom always has a nest, even in a cage.
Dina Eliezer is the education director at Congregation Beth El Early Childhood Center in Voorhees, N.J.