Disappearing Alice

Alice doesn’t live here anymore. In September of 2007, the lawyer for my mother’s New York co-op apartment called me at work to say that her apartment fire had led them to require round-the-clock help in order for her to continue living there. This was the first that I heard of the fire. But it made sense. A few weeks earlier, Peter and I were troubled and perplexed by the state of her home when we drove down from Vermont to visit her. Always immaculate and welcoming before, on this hot August day, the heavy air conditioning units sat on the floor in front of windows shut tight. The apartment was stifling and dirty. We put the units back in and cleaned, but she couldn’t explain. She had no memory of the fire department removing the units in order for the smoke to clear.

We set up round-the-clock care, but she hated it. “They follow me around, like the Gestapo,” she said. A proud, hardworking career woman, she did all the cooking and cleaning for our family of five, without any outside help. Next, we tried a one bedroom apartment in a nearby senior living community. After she kept trying to walk home, they said her only option with them was the lockdown Alzheimer’s Unit. They urged us to find another solution because she was still too well. That’s how she came to live with us.  Alice was disappearing. She lost her own home.

Often, the “internal governor” of people with Alzheimer’s also disappears: They say exactly what’s on their mind. This disappearance let Alice find parts of herself that she had kept hidden, from her children, anyway. She wished out loud that she had gone to medical school instead of becoming a biology teacher. The years of her pushing me in this direction and away from creative work made sense at last. And when she stood in my kitchen admiring the cabinet knobs I had hand-painted and said, “You should quit your job and make art full-time,” her loss was my gain.


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