My Mother, Her Hands

I feel like I’ve always been aware of my mother’s long tapered fingers. Most of the time they were covered in gold rings, catching light as she lit a cigarette or held a glass of wine, always with her pinky extended. In case you didn’t get it by the regal way she held her head, the elegance of her hands confirmed that although not born in to royalty, my mother certainly thought she should have been.

It wasn’t until a few years in to her battle with Alzheimer’s that I started to see her hands differently, that they went from Queenly to furiously expressive. The word furious used deliberately. In the same deliberate way she now has those fingers grab my hair and tug at it in a way that says, “LOOK AT ME!” or “I’M HUNGRY!” or “I HATE YOU!”

I’m never quite sure.

Such an interesting experience witnessing a person, especially a person you know very well, succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. People often say that he or she “is not the same person,” and because of this they would rather not see them anymore. Certainly people, and by people I mean even my first cousin in reference to my mother, have said the following, or some variation of it,

“I don’t need to visit, I would rather remember her as she was.”

Sad for both people actually. Obviously devastating for the person afflicted, since feeling isolated is one of the biggest sources of depression for those with Alzheimer’s, but a bummer for the avoider too. You can’t feel good about yourself knowing you didn’t have the cojones to show up for someone you once loved in a time of need. But also, you miss the opportunity to see an aspect of the person in a different light. Like me and my mother’s hands.

In fact, the tiny list of visitors to my mother was one of the reasons I launched Laughter On Call, and started hunting comedians with notoriously vast resources of courage to show up and try to make her laugh. It was also the impetus for creating some basic tools to help people who maybe want to show up but don’t know what to do or say. I wanted to give people concrete things to do to feel less unmoored in the presence of a loved one who…is. So that even though he or she is not the same person, you can be present for the person before you today. Maybe share a laugh, a smile, or even just a look that says “I see you.”

In a recent article in the LA Times about the legendary producer Terry Semel now struggling with Alzheimer’s, the esteemed Hollywood executive and close friend of Mr. Semel’s for decades, Ron Meyer, had the closing quote,

“…he [Meyer] admitted he probably won’t be going back. ‘I’m ashamed. I love him. I’ve never known anybody with Alzheimer’s before,…’”

Here’s my contention and my goal: You don’t have to be ashamed, you don’t have to spend the rest of your life thinking, man, I should have just shown up, I should have just tried, if only I’d had the courage.

You do. You just need some support, like some of those things you clip in to a mountain when you are climbing so you don’t fall off.

I can give you some of these.

Just don’t ever rely on me to label your rock climbing apparatus.