One of the last Thanksgivings I spent with my mom proved you can beat dementia, even if it’s only for a few minutes. We traditionally had dinner with our cousins in Tempe. This year would be quite different as my mom no longer lived at home, but instead, she lived in a care facility. My father had finally accepted that he couldn’t do battle every hour of every day against the dementia that was claiming her mind and the emphysema ravaging her body from years of chain smoking. There was only one of him, and those two—dementia and emphysema—were bullies. They exhausted him and ripped his heart to shreds as he watched the love of his life slip away. Lesser men would’ve given up sooner.
Mom had no idea it was Thanksgiving when we picked her up, and even when she was reminded, she immediately forgot. She constantly asked, “Where are we? Why are we here?” We took turns answering her, as it was the civil thing to do. The fact that she was only a shadow of the woman we all remembered cast a sad pall on the day.
At some point, Mom’s cousin, who was Mom’s age, pulled out some old boxes of photos. She listened as he explained who was in the picture. Mom would chime in with a comment when she saw a photo of someone cemented in her long-term memory, someone like her own mother. Those people were the people she remembered, or so we thought.
Our cousin held up a photo of a wedding party. The bride and groom were people I’d never heard of, so I knew they were friends or distant relatives at best. He easily remembered the adults in the party (as he had no memory issues), but when he got to the kids, the flower girl and the ring bearer, it took a while before he finally remembered the little girl’s first name, but he was stumped on the male ring bearer.
Mom peered over his shoulder and said the boy’s first and last name. Our jaws collectively hit the floor. When we asked how she knew that, she mentioned where he lived and how he’d come to be chosen as the ring bearer. Keep in mind, this wasn’t someone she knew well. He was just a neighbor kid who happened to be the right age and was the son of a friend of the bride or groom. My mother had probably spoken to him a few times in the neighborhood, but she was much older and had no reason to remember him.
When she finished speaking, we were all shaking our heads. She couldn’t remember it was a national holiday, but she could remember the random neighborhood kid from the wedding fifty-one years before. Then we laughed, and the sadness was lifted. For a few moments, we’d seen the “old Sue.”
We used to joke that she could meet a stranger and find someone they both knew after just ten minutes of conversation. She was Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon—and everyone else. She probably knew someone who knew Kevin Bacon. We watched this happen time and time again where she’d strike up a conversation and inevitably find a common link, a friend, colleague, or family member that they both knew.
You see, that’s how it was for my mother. My mom was thankful for every person she ever met, believing each interaction had the potential to make her laugh, learn, appreciate, challenge, wonder, create, think, accept, believe…and much more. Each person was worth remembering, which is why she could name every student in her first grade class, until dementia stole her mind. My wife and I have joked that it’s probably a good thing Facebook didn’t come around until after her death. She’d have broken it from overuse.
The photo I’ve included shows her (on the right) during an initial meeting with one of our friends. And yes, they did find a mutual acquaintance after a few minutes of discussion.
At a time when things are so divisive, when our differences eclipse our similarities, and we struggle to find common ground even with family members, I think of what my mom would’ve done on this Thanksgiving. I believe she would have included each person in conversation, told stories to make everyone laugh, and listened intently, asking questions to truly learn more about the speaker. Her actions would have shown how thankful she was to have each person in her life.
So I’ll try to follow her example, probably without the same eloquence or grace, but I’ll make the effort—today and all the days to come.
I hope the same is possible for you and yours. Happy Thanksgiving.