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Notes on my mother, who has Alzheimer's disease

“Oh look,” said my mother in a sing-song voice, pointing wistfully ahead, “it’s the man in the moon. We haven’t seen him in a while, but there he is. He’s so bright tonight, but that’s him.”

We were driving down the street I grew up on and the sun was large and orange and just beginning its trek down toward the horizon. We slowed to a stop at a red light and were squinting in the brightness, and while I have grown used to odd exclamations from my mother, this one struck me as something different, as a magical clue to the dwindling world inside her head.

I turned over her words, puzzling over them and looking at the sun and trying to see what she saw. What a beautiful world, I thought, where the moon is the man in the moon and tonight the moon just happens to be enormous and orange and blindingly bright, and the night sky behind him glows, streaked with pinks and yellows and the occasional dab of blue.

What a majestic world wherein such a thing as that is so exceedingly normal that one might say simply, Oh, there’s the man in the moon. My, isn’t he bright tonight?


My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia about two years ago. It was in the early stages then, and manifested mostly in a confusion about numbers and the Internet and entirely irrational mood swings and paranoia. To me, she merely seemed more unpleasant than usual. My mother had always been prone to irrationality, so when the symptoms first began, they didn’t seem that out of character.

But she was also an exceedingly brilliant woman with a mind comprised of miraculous connections and an understanding of relationships that few historians have. She was highly lauded and extremely well-known in her field, and students still study—and will likely continue to study—her texts and translations, long after she is gone. When the symptoms of Alzheimer’s first began, the most obvious sign of them was that she was no longer able to hide the more damaged parts of herself from her friends and colleagues; that she was no longer able to direct them only at her family and only in private. And so when her friends first began to tell me and my sister that something about our mother was “off,” our initial response was, “Well, yeah.”

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