I could hear the mournful wailing from the street as I approached my house. No question, that was my 16-year-old Jack Russell terrier “singing the blues.” Once inside, I found Zoe in the kitchen staring at the light grey wall as she continued her plaintive tune.
She’d had those odd behaviors for a year: Getting lost in the house, stuck in corners, urinating on rugs, and that sorrowful howling. It was heartbreaking. The vet told me there was no definitive test, but she agreed with what I knew in my heart: Zoe had dementia.
Many of the symptoms were familiar to me, echoing the same ones that my mother exhibited from dementia in her final years.
“Hey Zoe, I’m here!” I shouted to her that day as I entered the house. No reaction. She was largely deaf, too. In what had become a regular routine, I got down on my knees so that she could see me and reached out to rub her soft ear. She always loved that, and she’d lean into my hand as her way of reconnecting.
The first time I feared something was amiss with my mother was a decade before she died of lung cancer. One bright summer day, she answered the kitchen phone and I could hear my friend Holly asking, “May I speak to Steven?”
I was home for a visit, her firstborn, and standing right next to her. Still Mom replied: “There’s no Steven here.” Abruptly I grabbed the phone and chirped, “Hello.” Holly’s first question: “Is your mother okay?” I really didn’t know, but I lied to cover for her. “Oh yes, there’s a lot of activity here with the grandkids, I don’t think she heard you.”
After hanging up with Holly I questioned Mom with some exasperation. “What’s the matter with you? I was right here.” She didn’t answer – now I think she must have felt ashamed – and I didn’t understand, a vexing, saddening first. The following year she forgot my birthday, an event that, at least in her mind, was once a Major National Holiday.
As the seasons rolled by, Mom became more disoriented. She’d insist that we were at her beach house when, in fact, she was in her Greenwich Village apartment. I challenged her, often starting with a plaintive, “Mom!” This wasn’t the mother I knew. And while I didn’t grasp it in the early years, she was disappearing in plain sight.
But not without a fight. When challenged, Mom’s inner spitfire would come alive, and her tongue became wicked as never before. One day she had insisted on going to the ER, but once there she only wanted only to flee. She called me – I was at home hundreds of miles away – and when I told her that she needed to complete the tests they’d started at the hospital, she let me have it: “You’re a terrible son. How could you do this to me, especially after everything I’ve done for you?”
I was heartbroken. Confused. Hurt. And angry. I tried to be compassionate, but she kept pushing my buttons. I was not always my kindest self to her, and that haunted me then, and still does. More than anything, I kept trying to hold on to the mother I’d known my whole life.
As I did with my dog. For about nine months, I’d been able to keep Zoe’s condition on the down low, especially because – like Mom – she had both good days and bad ones. But recently she had meandered out of the front yard and down the two-lane street. Confusion must have set in when she reached the stop sign. My next-door neighbor found her – alone and forlorn, and howling. He quickly alerted me and I ran to scoop her up and bring her home.
Once Zoe was back in my arms, the neighbor asked directly: “How long has she been demented?” The word rang harshly in my ears. Her secret – our secret – was out.
After that I became more vigilant with Zoe: No more letting her out in the yard, no off-leash walks in the park. To calm her, the vet prescribed Prozac, the same medication my mother took to quiet her anxiety as she lost her footing in the world. A few months before my mother died, we watched a TV commercial for an Alzheimer’s drug. Mom turned to me and said with a smile, “At least I don’t have that.” “You are absolutely correct,” I agreed. After all, she had dementia.
In her last voicemail message to me, a week before she died, Mom lambasted me, accusing me of leaving her the wrong phone number. I felt a familiar anger rise, but by then I understood my real anger was about losing her – not just her mind and spirit, but soon enough all of her, to eternity. I needed her, and she was leaving me. Even now at age 62, several years after her death, I joke to my siblings: “I want Mom!” They crack up, but I know they are laughing with me. They understand.
A few months before Mom died, she got out of bed and pulled open the bottom drawer of her dresser, as if it were a toilet seat. This was not my mother; this was her illness. Too late to stop her from urinating in the drawer, I voiced no exasperation, no plaintive, “Mom!” I steadied her, wanting to prevent a fall.
Afterward the aide helped her to the bathroom to clean up while I threw the sullied clothes into the hamper and wiped down the bureau. In a fresh nightgown, Mom got back into bed for a well-deserved night’s sleep, surrounded not with shame, only love, whether she knew it or not.
My mother’s illness changed me, teaching me to be more patient and compassionate. I used that as I helped see Zoe through to the end. I understood her incontinence was not willful, and I had “puppy pads” placed strategically around the house. I kept a bottle of “professional strength urine destroyer” to clean up when she messed up. There was no “bad dog” uttered, no shaming. But I also never slept through the night, and I was often tired and cranky.
Sometimes my emotions spilled over, but never at her.
A few days before Thanksgiving, Zoe passed away, held by my love, released and at peace – just as my mother had been three years earlier.
By Steven Petrow © 2019 The New York Times