When Alzheimer’s Disease Relieves Us of the Pain in Our Past

Photo by James Sutton. (Pexels)

At Guernica, Maria Browning reflects on the fact that while Alzheimer’s Disease has stolen her mother’s memory, it has also relieved her mother of the torments and disappointments of her past — something that Browning is unable to forget.

My mother is both child and madwoman, all the time. She doesn’t know what day it is, or what she did one minute ago, or even the names of the few friends who still call or stop by to visit. She gets angry at the trees for dropping their leaves in autumn and can no longer understand why it’s a bad idea to share her chocolate bar with the dog. Dementia has wiped out most of her past, leaving behind a shell of personality that exists in a perpetual, baffling present.

The loss of memory is so awful a prospect, yet memory is, at best, a mixed blessing. It’s a source of torment as often as pleasure, the place where pain and loss reside. Grudges live there, and so do shame and regret. My mother, as far as I can see, is relieved of all those things. The deprivations of her childhood, her difficult marriage, the baby she lost, her thwarted dream of a singing career—all gone now. No memory means no grieving. And yet, there is still that disquiet behind her smile. There remains some unbeautiful mystery in the place she now dwells, something bad that is unknowable to me, unnameable to her.

I keep running up against that something whenever I try to find comfort in my mother’s liberation from her past. It’s so tempting to deny the darkness I see in her, to choose to believe she’s entirely happy, and I’m not sure whether that’s for her sake or mine. Even when I was a little girl battling with her over the dolls, I desperately wanted her to be happy. I realize now that I thought her happiness would make mine possible. My fate was all bound up with hers, and that still feels true. What haunts her haunts me. The darkness is something shared between us, as real as our blood and just as elemental.

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