She’s not quite there yet, but at some point soon, my mother won’t know who I am. During my last visit, my sister-in-law mentioned that in one doctor’s appointment she thought it was 1975. The visit before that she left to use the bathroom, and when she finally came out she looked at me and asked where her son had gone.
The question posed in the headline is intended to be provocative because Alzheimer’s disease is itself a provocation. Even our most conventional common sense notions of self find themselves on shaky ground in the presence of an illness that systematically robs someone of their memory. When you take away the memories that define our relationships with each other, what’s left?
A paternity test would, of course, reveal that I am very much the son of the woman who can’t remember for more than a minute or two where I live, what I’m doing for a living, or even that I was in the room when she left to use the toilet. But parenthood isn’t just a question of genes. An egg or sperm donor can genetically be the parent of a child, yet their lack of knowledge and concern about their progeny renders them a mere necessity vastly outnumbered by the day-to-day sufficiencies the individuals raising the child have to offer.
The answer to the question regarding Alzheimer’s is still never, but it is half the answer it used to be. Or it very soon will be. There was once two of us that recognized the relationship between us and understood our particular versions of the history we had built up together over the years. Now there is only one.
Death would have the same affect, I suppose. But death robs us of the chance to look a parent in the eyes and converse with them. Even when that conversation repeats every few minutes the voice sounds the same and the body is still there moving more or less as it was before. Not so with the grave. There’s a finality there we can live with because we understand the rules, and mortality is the biggest rule of them all.
Now our shared history is all my responsibility, and I’m not feeling up to the task. My own memory is as tainted with emotion and colored by personal bias as anyone else’s. My version of events is as much a collection of impressions and feelings as it is a record of shared experiences. I, like my mother, am not the same person I used to be, and I sometimes have trouble remembering who that person was. Alzheimer’s undoes our definition of what makes a relationship real, but in doing so it reveals that, whatever else they may be, relationships aren’t just the stuff of accurate memories.