During Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, remember Mama’s last Sunday

Sundays used to be special days with my grandmother. Each Sabbath, the woman we called “Mama” taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, then filled her dinner table with a buffet of Southern cooking, fried chicken or pot roast, chicken and dumplings and collards, making certain every family member had a favorite on the table. But as the years passed, we began to see Mama’s memory fade. And then her only child, my Dad, died unexpectedly at 51. And it seemed from that day forward, Alzheimer’s hit Mama hard. In fact, years later and confined to a nursing home, she would often ask, “Why doesn’t your Daddy come to see me?” Reminded that Dad had passed years before, the response was always the same: “Oh yeah,” she would say. “That killed me.” Indeed, my father’s death seemed to accelerate my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s. One weekend, I entered her home only to see flames from a gas stove climbing dangerously near a kitchen ceiling. From there, her life was a series of moves from the home where she had lived for more than a half century. Assisted living, a private care home, a nursing home. But it was on a sun-washed Sunday in 1991, several years before she passed away, that Mama truly left us. After she moved to an assisted living facility near Birmingham, I visited every weekend, bringing her favorite orange gumdrops and other things she needed. One Sunday – what I think of as Mama’s last Sunday – a new nurse was on the floor and asked Mama who I was. “I don’t know,” Mama said. “But he must like me. He’s always bringing me things.” This was Mama’s last Sunday. I stayed a bit longer, hugged and kissed Mama goodbye. Then I quickly walked to my car and cried. To her, I was a kind stranger. She could no longer remember who I was. Mama was still breathing, still able to walk and talk. But for all intents and purposes, Mama was gone. Every Alzheimer’s family, or every friend of an Alzheimer’s sufferer will likely experience something like that “last Sunday,” when the loved one they once knew is gone. For me, from that day forward, the soul that lovingly cooked collards, sang church hymns and enjoyed country music became only a memory. She could remember stories from 50 years ago, but not a loved one’s name, or that a beloved son –my father -- had died. She was present physically, but her mind had been stolen by Alzheimer’s. Today, nearly 6 million Americans – including some 96,000 Alabamians –wrestle with this disease, as do their families, friends and caretakers. It’s the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month and as I reflect on the impact this disease has had on my family and countless others, I ask you to join me in supporting ongoing efforts to find a cure. Alzheimer’s does not discriminate or play favorites. It impacts rich folks and poor folks, regardless of race, gender, or political affiliation. I am grateful that Senator Doug Jones has taken a leading role in the bipartisan efforts to help Alzheimer’s victims and their loved ones. Legislation like the Younger Onset Alzheimer’s Disease Act and the BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act – bills that Sen. Jones sponsored – will make a difference. The goal of these legislative initiatives is simple: that no American family -- in Walker County or across the country -- will ever have to experience a “last Sunday” like Mama’s. Paul South is a former reporter and columnist for the Daily Mountain Eagle who now resides in Birmingham.