Stolen memories

Gerry Phelan
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An English proverb describes the eyes as the window to the soul. Those words seemed appropriate as I listened intently this week to a reader who shared her story.

It didn't matter that it was Mother's Day. It might have been Christmas, Easter, a birthday or any of those days the card people promote to help us celebrate a special occasion.

This was no Hallmark moment I was hearing about, but it was fitting to know that hundreds, maybe thousands of people go through the same thing: looking into the eyes of a loved one, and seeing nothing, no recognition of who you are.

Dementia is a cruel disease. It robs memories, relationships and sometimes love itself from the families involved.

What does it feel like to take a picture with Mom, show it to her and hear her ask, "Who is that with you?"

Sherry knows. It hurts.

It's the same hurt caused by the blank stare as you walk down the hall toward your mother. She sees you coming, but she has no idea that you were once the little girl she took swimming at Bannerman Park or sliding near Long Pond; that she helped pick out a dress for the grad, and danced with your husband on your wedding day.

Sometimes something sparks a memory. Out of the blue, she'll say, "Get me a drink of water, Sherry," or make some reference to her late husband, Sherry's dad. Those moments are few and far between, but treasured nonetheless.

Sherry says there have been days that she had to take deep breaths before walking into the nursing home to see her mom, just to prepare herself. Her mother is cared for, and content. But it's tough seeing the same face, the same smile, hearing the same voice, giving her the same love and knowing that it will not be returned, not the way it once was.

What made things worse in Sherry's case is that there was no warning. The dementia was brought on by another disease and literally happened overnight. One day her mom was as moms are, phoning often, and sometimes way too much; the next day she was in hospital and her memory had not only faded, it was gone.

Dementia stole her mother without time to say goodbye. She's not dead, but the past lives on for only one of them. She doesn't remember an hour ago, let alone anticipate tomorrow. Sherry calls dementia the worst thief that ever existed, robbing the person of who they are and who they were.

She says it's strange, that when family members gather they talk about her mom as if she is gone. One will say, "You sound just like Mom," or they repeat sayings she was known for, just to keep her with them.

Family members, seize the present. Life, as Sherry's family knows with their mom, is a moment in time. They share the experiences. Smiling pictures are emailed across the miles and posted on the walls. Often they'll tell each other, "Mom knew me today," or "Mom asked about you." Well, not really, but Sherry knows what they mean. The reality is, a stranger could walk up to her mother and say she was her daughter, and Sherry's mom wouldn't know any better.

The devil that is dementia is as cruel as any of the illnesses that afflict society. The Alzheimer Society of Newfoundland and Labrador says more than 7,600 families are living with Alzheimer's disease in this province. The society has started an Alzheimer and Related Disease Registry, a database to help it respond to the needs of those affected by the disease and to offer support to families and caregivers. There is strength in numbers. It is a worthwhile effort.

For now, Sherry realizes that her mom enjoys her visits, and the caring and love of her family.

At the end of each visit, Sherry hugs her mom and says, "I love you." Sometimes, her mom says it back.

"That's good enough for me," Sherry says.

It has to be.

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached at

Organizations: Alzheimer Society of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Bannerman Park, Long Pond

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