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Surprised by a God-Given Miracle of Memory

An Alzheimer’s patient unexpectedly unearths a shared moment from the past with her son.

Edward Grinnan

“Hi, Mom, how are you doing?” I said, dropping my bags.

My mother glanced at the aide that was straightening her pillows and said, hesitantly, “My youngest.”

“Yes, I know,” the aide said. “He came all the way from New York.” She nodded at me and moved on to the next room at the memory care unit back in Michigan where Mom had lived for the last couple of years as her Alzheimer’s inevitably worsened, her once-sharp mind and memory dimming.  

I had a feeling she was searching for my name but remembered even now that I was her youngest, a surprise late-in-life baby. Years before memory issues set in, she had the technique of calling out all the names of my siblings (and sometimes the dog) before getting to mine: “Joe, Mary Lou, Bobby, Pete (the dog), ED!”  

Mom pointed to a chair by a window that looked out on the birdfeeder we brought from her yard—along with the companion St. Francis Statue—when we moved her to Claussen Manor. I rose to help her out of bed. She loved to watch the birds, especially on such a pristine spring day as this. I moved her to the floral-patterned wingback back chair and sat in the matching love seat across from it. She had a lovely little suite here at Claussen, after a couple of less than satisfactory stops at other facilities I don’t care to describe. 

Suddenly mom turned and asked, “Do you still play trombone?”   

What a question! I almost laughed. I picked up the trombone in grade school. I went to a big meeting one evening with my parents held by Mr. Okin, the band director. “You look like a trombonist to me,” he said. I have no idea how he reached that conclusion apart from the fact that he probably needed some poor kid to play trombone and who looked capable of lugging one around. 

My doctor later opined that it would be good for my asthma, though I don’t think Mr. Okin realized he was enlisting an asthmatic trombone player. I liked the slide. You could make some really weird sounds using it. So, my parents rented me a trombone—rented because no one thought I was destined to be the next Glenn Miller. I hung with it till high school when I took up the bass guitar and joined a basement blues band. 

But Mom’s strange question caused a memory to fall open. I was nine. It was Mom’s first birthday without my brother Bobby, who’d died tragically that year. (Bobby, who had Downe’s syndrome, loved all birthdays.) Both Mary Lou and Joe were off at college, and my father was away on business. It was just the two of us celebrating with one candle that wouldn’t stay lit on a homely little cake from Awrey’s bakery. Mom only ate half her piece. She cleared the table then sat down to a cup of tea. Her hair had turned white in the last year. I still wasn’t used to it. I went upstairs to practice. 

But not for long. A few minutes later I came marching down the stairs, my trombone blaring out Happy Birthday, slurred notes and all. It’s a good thing the windows were closed, or the neighbors might have called the police. 

Mom nearly knocked her tea over getting up and wrapping me in her arms with a strength I never knew she had, that any woman had. We stayed that way for a long time, me thinking what it must be like to feel what she was feeling. And it scared me a bit. It still does, the sadness she must have tried to bury with my brother. Even today, if I close my eyes, I can still feel that fierce embrace, the amazing strength of that long-ago hug. 

Now, in Claussen Manor, I took her hand. “Yes, Mom,” I said, because I couldn’t say no. “I still play the trombone.”

“Good,” she said. “You were a good player.” 

Her eyes drifted back to the bird feeder and the squabbling birds until she drifted off to sleep. For a long while I sat watching her, wondering what her mind could still process. Our memories are a maze we often wander. In Alzheimer’s that maze grows smaller and more confusing and ultimately leads nowhere. Yet sometimes there is a little, God-given miracle of memory, an image with meaning and emotion that breaks lose. A trombone, a birthday, a hug. It happened for both mom and me that day. 

She would have turned 109 on September 20. I don’t like to refer to it as a birthday in heaven, as so many do. I think of heaven as eternity which, by definition, negates time and birthdays. If anything, she has her coppery natural hair color back and is still the quick-witted game show champion she was in the 1960s, the girl who went to college at a time when few girls did, when she was only 16.   

Have there been dementia sufferers in your life who have surprised you with a moving memory or question? Tell me about it by emailing me here, please.

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