When grain was yellow

I teamed up with my brother recently to pay a long overdue visit to our mother. As I’ve written before, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s back in July ’06, but she’s hangin’ in there pretty well. She still knows who I am when I call, doesn’t need any sponge baths, and she can still make her own lunch. Her husband, Bill, who’s the same age (84), is still fairly sharp and still capable of taking care of the household. God bless him.

But Mom’s short-term memory is now toast. Total toast. She’s living in the present tense, because the part of her brain that processes and delivers information of recent experience is broken. She can still pull out data from her school days at the U of O back in ’48, but ask her about yesterday, and there’s no way she can retrieve a speck of it. Hell, ask her about something that took place five minutes ago—literally—and it’s already gone. It’s bothersome, to put it mildly.

So, anyway, Tom and I decided to pay a mutual visit. It would just be more fun and light-hearted, we reckoned, if we could regale Mom with the Bruce and Tom Show, keep the wisecracks and nostalgia comin’, drink wine on the deck and have as good a time as possible. To help keep the positivity flowing, Tom brought 10 new photos of his 6-year-old boy, Travis, which would delight Grandma no end. As it turned out, “no end” came close to being strangely accurate.

There we were, the three of us on the patio while Bill watched his beloved Yankees gag it up to the Tigers. Tom pulled out the pictures, handed them to Mom, and she began to go through them, clucking and giggling and doing the full gramma bit with each supercute shot. Tom and I both went inside to top off our glasses and leave her alone with the pics for a minute. When we returned, we saw that she’d gone through all of them, and was now taking a second lap through the stack. And it slowly dawned on us. Since she has no short-term memory, she had no way of knowing that she’d already seen all the photos moments before. There was nothing in her head that could say, “OK, we’re finished now. Seen all the pictures.” When she looked at each, she was seeing it, for all intents and purposes, for the first time. No matter that she’d already seen it 30 seconds ago. And she could’ve gone on like that for who knows how long, flipping through a set of 10 pictures again and again, as if stuck on some mundane, endless loop.

After watching her take three laps through the stack, and us getting a little creeped out by this sad weirdness, Tom finally reached over and said, “Here Mom, put these down and talk to us.” She did so happily, completely oblivious to the subtle little slice of horror that she’d just put on display.