MA CHRONICLES (Part 2): SEARCHING FOR SOLID GROUND. WHAT IS HOME TO AN IMMIGRANT WITH ALZHEIMERS?
When my parents divorced, my mother didn’t want our Indian family to know, especially her mother, which made visits to India particularly difficult. My grandmother was one of the softest, kindest, devout and faithful women to whom most of us now pray for small miracles. The last time I saw her, with a furrowed brow, she asked, “how is mom and dad?”. I felt she had an intuition about my parents’ divorce. To lie to her, even through omission, made my knees weak. When my grandmother passed away, my mother said, “She knows now” with a sigh of relief.
My mother held many firsts in our family besides this seemingly insurmountable shame of divorce. She was the first to come to the United States. She was the first in her generation to embark on college and the only to get a Ph.D. She was one of only two women who worked at NIH at one point, where they didn’t even have a women’s bathroom on her floor. She was a trailblazer.
Her personal triumphs were not worn like badges, but rather, they were tiny weights in her shoes, tethering her to the earth, making it all worth it, giving her a place, a position in this world. Now as her long term memory, short-term memory, and working memory are thin, she recalls her milestones with gaps that leave her floating. She talks most of the day.
“Your father and I are hardly divorced. That woman, what was her name? She wasn’t around him very long.” She says in reference to his second wife of over a decade.
“Where were you when I lived there?”, she asks me about my childhood home.
“I ask myself why did I come here. What did I do all this time? India will always be my home.” she says with her hand on her chest for a moment before she repeats and picks up with “I ask myself why did I come here” again.
Currently, the concept of home is a rivalry between a changed land she left long ago and my father’s laugh that captured and embraced her, nearly fifty years ago.
There are stories of Alzheimer’s patients who are found wandering the streets trying to walk back to their childhood home, but for her, as an immigrant, this longing for home has been simmering below the surface for years before the disease. Like a volcano that never went dormant, it erupts now…