compassion · Family · older adults · personal growth

The Thief

Joan on her honeymoon

I am watching you wither away and there is nothing I can do but love you. Dementia is more powerful than I am. I’m just a human. It has the power to weave its way into the lives of anyone it wants. It doesn’t care how old you are, what kind of life you’ve lived, how much money you have, or how well-known you are.

It was clever. It snuck in like a thief but didn’t steal anything right away. It waited and watched. It wasn’t greedy at first. It took a little here and there so we wouldn’t notice—a misplaced item, a forgotten word, a memory. After it stole the little pieces, it wanted more. It took your short-term memory, your grandchildren’s names, and the way you understand and interact with the world. It will soon take the last of your independence, your children’s names, time and place, and who you used to be. You’ll forget about me and only know me as the kind woman who hugs you and tells you everyone is safe and sound when you can’t find the babies who grew up years ago. I wish I could put bars on our windows to keep the thief out.

You can’t count on dementia to be the same each day. It doesn’t like predictability, structure, or schedules. Sometimes it swirls you around until you don’t know up from down and other days, you’re just a regular old lady with a touch of forgetfulness who knows the name of the president and season. Every day is a surprise.

You tell me about your day and how busy you were—where you went, who you saw, and what they said. A stranger would believe you, but I know you spent your day traveling through time, and that busy day you had was decades ago. Time travel is exhausting and disorienting. No wonder you can’t always remember when and where you are.

You swear people break into your home and leave food in your fridge and cupboards. “Mom, why do you have eight boxes of granola bars and three family size bags of chips?” You look at me and say, “Oh, those aren’t mine. Those were here when I moved in.”  Cleaning out your fridge is a guessing game.

I ask to look in your purse to make sure you have your debit card. Your purse is full—a brush, three combs, one glove, pictures, old greeting cards, junk mail, and $10 in change. Your debit card isn’t there and I panic. It’s in your pocket. “Oh, I don’t know who put that there.” It’s the same answer you give me when I ask why a watch you haven’t worn in forty years is in your purse.

You are angrier than you used to be. You accuse your twin sister of going through your purse and stealing your money. She is the target of all your wrath. It’s as if a lifetime together has reached its breaking point and sibling rivalry is alive and well. You yell at her and strike out. Your words drip with anger. “Mumma always said you can’t be trusted. Daddy said to act right and come home right now!” You were sixteen when your father passed away.

Lately, is seems like your disease is on fast forward and we are losing you more quickly. I can’t keep up. I thought I’d be ready but I’m not. I look at your face and try to soak you in. I touch your soft silver hair. I wrap my arms around your shrinking body. I want to scoop you up and hold you forever. You are more than my mother-in-law. You are my mother and I am your daughter. You love me like I’ve always been yours, and you’ve always been mine. My heart will break when you don’t know who I am and how much I love you. I’ll never be ready.

2 thoughts on “The Thief

  1. Jennifer,
    This is heartbreaking. I feel so bad for you, her and your family. I can’t imagine the fear that she must feel in the moment, and then the moment is gone until the next time.


  2. My heart breaks for her pain and yours. How terrifying to have no control over what and who you will remember from one moment to the next. Her brain may forget, but I know her heart remembers.


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