My sister and I had inklings of a slow atrophying of my mother’s mind, perhaps of her very self, before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in April, 2008. And yet, strangely, I’d also noticed around that time she’d seemed to be more “herself.” So I felt oddly reassured at the news. The diagnosis seemed to explain something about who my mother was, perhaps who she’d been most of my life. Due to its seeming genetic component, we believed the type to be early-onset. It could have started when I was still a kid.
Yoga citta vritti nirodha — Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness. This, from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, was the first piece of a classical text I memorized when I trained to become a Yoga teacher. Perhaps paradoxically, this also seemed to describe what had been happening to my mother.
My mother was a fashion model by profession. Tall and imposing, dark eyed, with eyebrows like an eagle’s — La Belle Française, — they’d pitched her at her earliest modeling agency, in Boston in the 1960s. In person until not so long ago, her beauty was so formidable as to make people nervous, though in the pictures an endearing, long-lashed prettiness offset her severity.
How this translated into her role as a mother was how little she needed to say to intimidate us to submission. Rather, she gave us her look — accompanied by a baring of long, red-painted, manicured fingernails. We got her message. That is to say, she was a woman not of words but of presence.
Today, at 69, she has less of that charisma — she has been diagnosed with the disease in its early to middle stages. But she has at least as much of a quality that I, earlier, modeled myself on, and later came to admire in her: a quirky, rather peculiar nature that could be summarized as an insistence on living in the moment. By concentrated meditation on the moment and each moment that follows, the yogi gains sacred knowledge. So these days, I sometimes believe I am not so much losing my mother as communicating, more and more so exclusively, with that side of her that exists only in the present.
There was a tic our mother had when we were young. My sister did a hilarious and not-so-nice imitation. You’d ask her a question, and she’d peer at you with her black imperious eyes. “Sapristi” — an empress — her boyfriend from the time re-named her. She’d stare for five seconds, ten seconds, maybe a minute. Thinking. Or maybe forgetting, you never knew which, until she would finally respond, but often with an unsatisfying answer. “Well what do you think?” Was her prepossessing demeanor just a cover for her trying hard to remember the question?
Today that’s what she does. She sits still until it comes back to her, that train of thought, that question she was supposed to answer — until, more often now than not, it doesn’t come back to her and she keeps staring, lost, it seems, in the present: anaditvaim — time, existing from eternity.
Alzheimer’s is about living in the present. To exist outside of memory is to occupy the moment wholly. For instance, my mother quit smoking around the time of her diagnosis. As she explained it, she’d have the urge to smoke, would forget to light up before she got her hands on the pack, and so broke a 50-year addiction. It seemed the craving no longer got stuck in her memory circuits, and so easily fell away.
Another lifelong habit she fell out of around this time was Yoga. I was disappointed, because I’d begun my own study, when I was 19, at her encouragement. Her quitting owed to a drug prescribed at her memory clinic that may or may not staunch the progression of the disease — Aricept — that has the side effect of muscle cramps. The cramps seemed to be exacerbated by her practice of a low-impact, mostly made-up, often-done-in-bed sort of Yoga . After a while, though, she forgot about this contraindication and got back in the habit.
Sukha / dukha, I also learned in Yoga — life contains pain and pleasure; by cultivating detachment from both, the yogi observes both their beauty and hardship without allowing either to overwhelm experience. Watch, observe, knowing you can’t control.
I am not the first person to make this connection between the loss of certain cognitive brain functions and a Yoga-like ability to occupy the moment. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who wrote a book detailing her experience of a stroke that temporarily wiped out the language and other functions of her left brain, describes the right-brain-left-brain dichotomy as dividing thinking about the present — in the right hemisphere — and thinking about the past and future — in the left. The left hemisphere, she says, is responsible for “that ongoing brain chatter.” The right brain, in her rendition of it, collects data through the senses “and then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like, what the present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like.”
During her stroke, Bolte Taylor experienced what it would be like to operate entirely from the right brain. “Because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.” She refers to this state of mind as “La-La Land,” she says in a recorded lecture.
“Imagine what it would be like to be totally disconnected to your brain chatter that connects you to the external world…. I felt lighter in my body…. I felt this sense of peacefulness. Imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage. I felt euphoria.”
“I’m getting wicky,” my mother says, a sort of joke with herself. She seems to be practicing non-attachment: vairagya. We are out to lunch on her block in Long Island City. She uses the made-up expression a lot now. “I’m getting really, really —” she pauses, as if seeking just the perfect, onomatopoetic evocation of her mind state “—wicky.” She laughs, a little nervously. “It’s weird. Your mother is really weird. All I can do is accept it.”
I don’t remember my mother ever speaking much in complete sentences. She spoke with her long limbs, her elegant fingers and body. Today, she sweeps her arms across the café and looks at me with a weighty expression, hums a little, and then stares as if I am supposed to have understood her meaning precisely. She perhaps believes she has been explicit, though she also has long thought we three — she, my sister and I — could read each other’s minds because we were psychically intertwined, probably through many previous lives. “I just don’t understand. I think I have to go to the doctor.”
She is describing post-smoking weight gain, I have more or less surmised.
Before I knew my mother had Alzheimer’s, I attributed many of the qualities I now associate with the illness to her mystical bent. People described her as “loopy,” or “spacey.” Sometimes I bore a smoldering bitterness: she didn’t seem to know or care about the doings of teens in the frenetic city. She could also be willfully ignorant, and this goaded me too.
Today, what I think about more often is whether the lessons that both of us have internalized through Yoga can help us understand, and accept, what is happening to her. I think about this a lot one day at lunch a month later, when it seems her language problem has gotten worse. I do most of the talking. She says “Wow!” and repeats questions: “Where is that?”; “What are you teaching?”; “Do you have a boyfriend?”; “Wow!”
After a while I get frustrated and hold up my cell phone to suggest to her I’m going to do some business. “Do you mind?” I ask her.
She is staring blankly out the window. “Noooo! I love to spend time with you.” But I find it unnerving to have her so close as I do the things I am accustomed to doing alone. I notice the barristas looking at us funny. But she’s O.K. What’s my problem? She used to counsel me as a kid: What does it matter what they think of you? You’re never going to see them again, and even if you do, so what?
In Yoga I’ve also learned flexibility — physical and mental. If a muscle seizes up, just wait, it will relax — keep stretching or flexing. If you feel a mental reflex to resist something, just sit with it, the reflex will pass. This is indeed why people sometimes counsel Yoga to treat addictions. Wait before you act — or don’t act — as the case may be. You achieve much once you stop telling yourself you can’t do things.
After a while I pull out some color swatches I’ve been carrying around for my paint job. Last time I did this, five years ago, it was already frustrating to hold a conversation with her due to memory loss, but she’d helped me with color. She stared at a shade and came up with a hundred words to describe it. She always had remarkable perception. Peaches with mint. Nostalgic. Lugubrious.
Today she doesn’t have many words: Bright. Depressing. Dark. Grayer. She doesn’t seem to be connecting; her eyes veer out that window while I continually draw back her attention, until after a while I give up.
“All I can do is say this is the way it is,” she says, as if to reassure not just herself but me. “I can go on long walks. I can enjoy myself. I just can’t talk to anyone and make much sense. I walk, smile at people. You can’t tell, can you?” she asks, finally.
The truth is, not really. She is still gorgeous, tall and not close to fat even with her post-smoking weight gain, her black hair barely grayed. She looks ten years younger than her age.
I hug her. She’s dying bit by bit, I think. What does it matter what people think?
“No. Not really,” I say.
About the Author
Elizabeth Kadetsky, a writer and Yoga instructor, is the author of “First There Is a Mountain,” a memoir. Her fiction has appeared in the Antioch Review, Best New American Voices, the Pushcart Prize anthology and other publications. She is currently a visiting writer at Penn State University’s creative writing program.