by Beth Whitman
Two of the behaviors that bugged me about Mom during the early stages of her Alzheimer’s disease, back before her condition was pronounced, were her almost reflexive reading aloud of every sign we encountered and her constant attempts to offer food to everyone in the room.
It wasn’t just road signs that Mom would read, but every word that came within her range of vision, including t-shirts, ball caps, etc. When greeting a new person, her focus was not their face, but whatever words might be displayed on their person. It often caused a break in the conversation while someone tried to absorb her meaning.
“Hello, Marianne,” they would say.
“John Deere,” she would reply.
A t-shirt displaying a church message made for some particularly funny moments. “Hello, Marianne,” someone would say. “God is speaking,” Mom would respond, and then after a short pause: “High Street Congregational Church.”
I have to admit that, even though this habit aggravated the heck out of me, sometimes her sign reading was actually helpful.
For example, if Mom and I were motoring along on some road trip, and I was behind the wheel with my wandering thoughts, I might not notice that the houses were slightly closer together than they had been just a few minutes before.
”45,” Mom would interject, and then, a short time later, “35.”
Within moments, just as we entered the heart of one of those Maine towns that aren’t really towns at all but just a few extra houses on lots that are two acres rather than five, Mom would suddenly call out “25.”
She wasn’t telling me to slow down, not in any explicit way. Although she would occasionally raise her voice as the speed limit got lower, Mom was simply reading the signs. And whatever her reasons were, it served me well in those instances. In fact, in the interest of public safety and reducing the number of speeding tickets handed out to preoccupied drivers, I’d say everyone should have an early-stage Alzheimer’s person in the car with them.
Other times, though, her reflexive reading bordered on the absurd, and was harder to ignore. Like when we were taking a trip in mid-July, with the warm, lazy breezes blowing through the car, Mom would suddenly interrupt the bucolic summer scene with “Bridges may be icy.”
And then again a short time later: “Bridges may be icy.” On and on it would go.
Soon I was tensing my muscles against the winter chill implied by Mom’s repeated warning. The July air no longer warmed the car. Our relaxing drive had become a psychological challenge. I braced myself.
“Bridges may be icy,” Mom would say, matter-of-factly.
Approaching a tollbooth was the worst. It would bring out an exhaustive flurry of disconnected commentary. When you’re not charged with the duty of reading every sign, you tend to overlook the volume of printed information that decorates the average toll plaza, but Mom made sure to drive home the point:
“Last exit before toll highway . . . Pull to the left . . . Toll plaza speed 10 mph . . . Rumble strip ahead . . . Cash cars two dollars . . . EZ Pass only . . . Oversize loads right lane . . . Speed limit 35 miles per hour . . . Lane closed . . . EZ pass accepted all lanes . . . Any vehicle cash receipt . . . EZ pass only others prohibited.”
Thank goodness Maine prohibits roadside advertising or we’d have been inundated with the endless chatter of consumer urgency every time we drove the car. As it is, Maine only allows small signs that point the way toward nearby businesses, and it was in these cases that Mom’s reading habit (and sharp eyes) took us on some fun little adventures.
“Perry’s Nut House” had us stopping at a hilarious curiosity shop, while “Bob’s Puzzles and Turtles” had us taking a hard right turn and then following several other signs until we found, in the middle of nowhere, a store that sold pet turtles AND puzzles of all varieties, including rare old puzzles that had been purchased at estate sales.
In fact, this side trip lead to a little side venture where, for $20 a piece, I would take home old puzzles, put them together, and wrap them with cellophane on a piece of cardboard so that Bob could photograph and then sell them in completed form.
The sign-reading behavior wasn’t nearly as irritating to me as the incessant offering of food. At home this was a constant. But even when seated at a restaurant, with plates of food having just arrived, before we could even take a bite, Mom would begin offering food from her own plate to every single person at the table. It got to the point where even Dad would get annoyed, and he would pause with a full fork poised at his mouth. “No, Marianne,” he would say with a touch of irritation, “I am fine eating what I have here in front of me for the time being.”
I don’t know when I realized that these behaviors were a sign of my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, rather than just motherly quirks destined to irritate me, but I did eventually come around to that understanding. And it was then that these same behaviors started to become endearing to me.
We didn’t travel as much in the last few years, but when we did, Mom would still read those signs. After a while they were the only words she could manage. And instead of irritation, I felt reassured by the same routine that used to bug me, comforted now that her mind was still active, still filled with an impulse to communicate.
Today, there are only vestiges of the behaviors I once disparaged, fading like shadows that disappear late in the day. When I visit Mom in the nursing home, I hold her hand as she pulls herself in her scoot chair along the hallway railing. When we get to the end of the corridor, she looks up at the red sign above the door.
“EX . . . IT,” she says, slowly. It may be the only word she utters the entire visit.
And she no longer explicitly offers food. But the instinct is still there. When I lift the plastic cup of chocolate milk to her lips, she takes a sip and then motions toward me. I know what she’s saying, so I put the cup to my mouth and take an ever-so-tiny sip before extending the cup back to her. Reassured, she eagerly drinks the rest.
Beth Whitman lives in Maine and is a member of Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage, a developing community on the coast of Maine focused on multigenerational living and sustainability.