IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Mother Died of Alzheimer's When I Was 17

By the time I got my period, my mother didn't recognize me anymore.
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By the time I got my period, my mother didn't recognize me anymore.

Being a teenager sucks. The hormones. The drama. The first love followed by the first heartbreak. Feeling like the world is ending over the smallest things, like someone wearing the same shirt as you to school on the same day. Tragic.

While adolescence is definitely a learning experience, it's absolutely the worst part of life. Sure, it's great to be young, and I'd go back in a second to appreciate that youth, but, overall, it's awful. The mood swings and the awkward body. The acne. Cursing the world because your breasts haven't come in and wearing extra-padded bras to make it appear that you have something there. 

Growing up is the pits, but it's even more dire when you're motherless.

My mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease when she was 49. I was 13. While my body was going through all kinds of craziness, so was hers, and we couldn't talk to each other about it. 

I was fortunate, however, that for most of my life before her diagnosis, she was an over-sharer. The first time my mother openly discussed sex with me, I was nine years old. I'm not talking the birds and bees, per se; she had done that when I was probably five. I'm talking about telling me about her actual first time.

We were staying at my grandmother's house for the weekend. It was always my favorite place to stay because not only did I get to crash in a room with an antique vanity, it was also my father's old bedroom. On this particular occasion, my mother was helping me make my bed when, out of nowhere, she says, "This is where your father and I made love for the first time."

Immediately dropping the blanket and backing away from the bed, I stared at her, mortified. She continued on to tell me that my father had taken her virginity and how beautiful it was. And the biggest bomb of all: they weren't married. To know my family is to know that premarital sex is at the top of the sin list.

"There's nothing wrong with sex, honey, as long as you love the person and they love you," she said. "It's just a more intimate way of telling someone you love them."

On another occasion, she told me she and my father hadn't had sex since 1985. It was probably 1989 when she told me. I was 10.

"C'mon Mom!" I yelled, putting my fingers in my ears. "La, la, la, la."

"Well, it's because of his accident, honey," she continued. My father was in an accident that nearly killed him when I was two. "But there are other kinds of stimulation." And she went on to explain to me what the clitoris is and that vibrators can be a girl's best friend.

"Mooooootherrrrrr!" I said, doing anything to get away from her. And what the hell is a vibrator?, I wondered. Don't worry, she explained it.

"You need to know this stuff, honey. You'll appreciate it later," she said.

Thinking about these and other conversations often convinces me that she knew she was losing her mind long before the Alzheimer's diagnosis. And they weren't all gross-out stories. She also showed me how to apply makeup and style my hair. She explained how to shape eyebrows, though I wouldn't take the plunge to pluck mine until I was 18. And while most of the time I just wanted to be playing with Barbies or dreaming of Joey McIntyre of New Kids on the Block, she turned everything into a learning opportunity for teaching me a life lesson.

"Joey is cute, honey, but don't let a man tie you down EVER," she said once when I was musing about my ultimate crush. "Many cute boys will come into your life. You focus on you, and going to college, and your career. If a man comes along that is worthy of you, you'll know."

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The lessons stopped several months before her diagnosis. The same stories that I thought were gross and embarrassing have turned out to be some of the best memories I have of my mother. They are also the only life lessons I have from her.

Once my mother fell ill, I was virtually parentless. My father's time was spent caring for her, and he neither had the energy nor the desire to deal with my teenage hormones or drama. His parenting involved giving me cash when needed. By the time I finally got my period, my mother didn't recognize me anymore.

While I started out as an early bloomer, getting hair in "places" and having to shave my armpits at the tender age of 8, I didn't get my first period until I was almost 16. Wondering if this was abnormal, I did the only thing one can do when motherless: I turned to teen magazines to answer my questions. I couldn't talk to friends — I'd been pretending to relate to their period pains since we were 12. One such magazine had a sponsored column by one of the major feminine product companies.

Armed with multiple copies of said magazine, I read through each column one afternoon until I found the answers I needed, like what a first period looked like. When I finally found the question, "I'm 15 and still haven't gotten my period. Is there something wrong with me?" The person responding told this girl that if she didn't get it before she turned 16, she needed to go to the doctor.

Great, I thought, because I need something else to make me a freak.

Fortunately, two months before I turned 16, the "magic" happened. I assumed, like in the movies, there would be a celebration of my womanhood, but who would celebrate with me?

Once, when home alone caring for her, I told her it had finally happened. She didn't speak at this point, and stared at me blankly before letting out a scream and putting her arms up in the air. I was so shocked by her response that I burst into a cry-laugh, then followed her example. We both burst into the giggles. 

It was the last time we ever laughed together.