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yvonne abraham

As a mother fights Alzheimer’s, her children reflect on motherhood

The regressions and reversals of Alzheimer’s disease mean we now care for our mother as she once cared for us.

A mother and daughter held hands recently during a visit.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Is our mother still with us?

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. On her best days, she can manage whole sentences, though occasionally they’ll be in Arabic, her first language. Other times her words are mangled between what remains of her mind and her lips — or they’re lost altogether.

Our mother used to talk: Fast and loud, with a distinctive clipped cadence. She summoned so many words: Tender and withering and funny and angry and illuminating and painful and comforting. Our mother was fierce, a woman of unnatural will who withstood decades that should have broken her.

Her body has a mind of its own, separate and apart from the one ravaged by Alzheimer’s. It is defiant, unbowed after bearing six children and raising them alone, after countless beatings, after years on her feet working in factories and bars, after lying awake each night worrying about whether we had enough and who we’d become. Even at 84, her body continues its relentless march forward. Her brain hurtles in the opposite direction, the regressions cascading.

We are our mother’s mothers now. We lie awake worrying about whether she has enough, and who she is becoming. At least one of her children visits her memory care home each day, tending to her as she once did to us. They wash her and change her diapers, moisturize her skin and brush her teeth; beg her to drink water and coax her into the sunshine; they entertain her with chocolate covered almonds and “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”


Some days she’s out of sorts, unreachable. But often, a bit of her comes back. We all follow along on the family group chat, where the lines are open all day for commiseration and celebration, and where the time difference between here and Australia means at least one of us is always awake.


The feed is mundane, profane, painful, hilarious. It is full of glee at little victories, which are all we have these days — clean hair, a correctly-applied name — and of hope that, on her worst days, she has no awareness, or at least no recollection, of the indignities the disease visits upon her. We troubleshoot together (How can we keep her shoes from disappearing? Has her light-fingered housemate taken her glasses yet again?) and buck each other up. It’s all in the Mum updates — the mupdates — like this one, from a few days ago:

Out of sorts to start but good now. Hydralite, glass of water, feeble teeth brushing (every bit helps) ... nails cleaned, back, arms, legs and neck moisturized. Lunch is mashed pumpkin and savoury mince. You’re up to date now! PS Melted then dried chocolate inside one of mum’s maroon shoes. Cleaned it up.

There are so many beautiful, fleeting moments of joy in these dispatches. Here is footage of Mum diving into her pudding and proclaiming “Yum!” Here is a video of her lovingly caressing one of her daughter’s hands, though she might not be sure which one it belongs to. Here she is sitting in an armchair in her room, the music turned up, singing along with her beloved Fairouz, her own voice sweet as it ever was: Ya Oum Allah ...

Every so often, there is a flash of her old fire. She’ll refuse to go for a walk, or bat away a hand trying to clean her teeth. She’ll swear or yell, get icy or physical. There is a weird kind of relief in seeing those traits endure, those that could make her difficult before the illness claimed her. Her worst doesn’t sting any more: It shows us all is not lost.


The six of us are in it together, though distance and other obligations mean some of us are more hands-on (sainthood would be in the cards for some Abrahams were the candidates in question not quite so godless).

But the setbacks and victories belong to all of us — like everything else in our lives. Our mother’s children grew up to be bound to each other completely; our bond is her enduring creation. More than mupdates fill our chats. We talk. All day every day, we share and overshare about everything: Our jobs, relationships, movies, walks, kids, politics, food. Especially food. Pictures of our dinners race across the ether, eliciting drools and recipe requests.

We are obsessed with making food, and eating it. Our mother was an effortless and brilliant cook. Once we got old enough to understand how good we had it, watching her expertly shape kibbe balls and stuff grape leaves left us in awe of her genius.

It was gut-wrenching to see her cooking slip, the disease that was taking hold cutting to the core of who she was. Our youngest sister propped her up for a while, watching over her shoulder to make sure she didn’t re-salt the tabouli and render it inedible. Before it was too late, she wrote down our mother’s recipes, such as they were. Now, on big occasions, she cooks the dishes for which we once gathered at our mother’s house, and they taste like heaven. Unless you are attending dinner remotely, in which case they fall somewhat short of that celestial mark.


If only our mother, all of her, could enjoy it, too. Not just the food, but the family she made to love each other and to care for her — to mother our mother, for as long as we get to keep her.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.