'You're Not My Daughter': Alzheimer's disease shatters a special bond.

Can a mother forget the child of her womb?” The prophet Isaiah reflects, using this image to demonstrate the unending providence of God toward each human creature. I have always found a great deal of comfort in the way this question is answered, “I will not forget you.”

Unfortunately, in an era when so many are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, a mother can and often does forget her children. I know, for my heart breaks each time my mother does not know my name or thinks I am her sister or stares at me blankly, failing to recall our past together or, worse, argues with me that I am not her daughter. My mother’s Alzheimer’s disease sneaked up on us, like a cat perched and ready to spring. Even with all that is written about the disease and plenty of evidence documenting its symptoms, the combination of natural aging and extended age can camouflage its presence. Besides, I was in denial.


My mother turned 90 in 2007, and the mind of a once independent, engaging, hard-working woman with a memory to be envied has deteriorated over the course of several years to a smattering of ideas interspersed with word searches and incomplete thoughts. Reduced to adult diapers, my mother needs constant care in order to get through each day; it is only a matter of time before this will not be enough. She lives with me now, something neither of us ever wanted, but it is a responsibility and a privilege I do not take lightly. Though the physical care required is constant and at times challenging, it is the emotional death that I grieve—the loss of connectedness to the woman who has always been a mainstay in my life.

As a grief counselor, I recognize the signs of anticipatory grief that assail me: the desire to distance myself emotionally, the future planning for a time when this is over, the guard on my feelings, the anger. My mother has forgotten me, and every time I look at her my heart weeps. If my mother forgot me, will God? What does this 21st-century version of a mother’s forgetfulness say to me of an ever-remembering God? Is there any comfort left in contemplating God’s mother-love? I think yes.

God’s memory is not brain-based, subject to electrical blips and shortages. God’s memory is heart-based. It embraces all the nuances of who I am as a human being and stores, as only a creator’s memory can, each cell of my existence. God’s memory operates always in present time, the kairos moment. The past, present and future are one in God, and my early fumbling to know God is equally alive with my present clinging to his unconditional love and the future “all-knowing” that awaits me. God’s memory of me is constant with the person known before I was knit in my mother’s womb.

This gives me an odd consolation as I gaze at my unresponsive mother. Perhaps, physical co-creator of my being that she is, she too stores somewhere within her the unconditional love she always gave me, a memory of me so blessed that it need not be spoken to be known. She may not be able to tell me that I am her daughter, but that does not mean she does not remember the child of her womb.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 3 months ago
Linda Rooney's description of anticipatory grief applies not only to those who care for Alzheimer's patients, but also to those who care for others with chronic, terminal diseases. These gentle healers and supporters - husbands, wives, parents daughters and sons - need our prayers and comfort. Often their smiles hide fears of the unknown future that are difficult burdens to carry alone. Recognizing this and letting them know we pray for them invites them to be sustained in their loving efforts with God's grace and blessing. As a faith-filled community, we live out our vocation as the Body of Christ.
Elaine Tannesen
9 years 3 months ago
Alzheimers has been called “the long good-bye”. We found it excruciatingly painful to see my feisty, passionate Italian mother slip away a little at a time. Even humor, the medication of choice in our family, did little to ease the pain. After caring for my parents and my mother-in-law, I have come to believe that, in the aging process, God calls us to turn towards him as our bodies and abilities diminish. The great unfastening. As the leaves on the autumn trees unfasten so do we let go of our earthly ability to run, to see, to hear, to control, and, for many, to think. One of my brothers and I each wrote a poem about my mother during this difficult time. His was entitled “Two Toes on Earth” and mine was “Gone to Heaven a Little Early”. Each poem expressed the belief that our mother’s memories, and very personality had already gone to heaven. So I pray for you as you witness this unfastening. One part that doesn’t unfasten is the very loving essence of your mother, held in God’s heart and yours as you so very beautifully communicated in your article.
Bruce Snowden
9 years 3 months ago
Linda Rooney's "You're Not My Daughter" about her Mom on the Cross of Alzheimer's, a transfixion shared no doubt, by her and other family members, quotes Isaiah, "Can a Mother forget the child of her womb?" Sadly with Alzheimer's "Yes" but deep within a Mother's heart I believe with Ms. Rooney,a Mother remembers even if unable to say so. In some cases however, it's also fair to ask the question, "Can the child of her womb forget his/her Mother in Alzheimer's?" Probably yes to a degree, too often driven by confusion I think, children simply drop off parents in Alzheimer's and "forget" to return. In such cases forgotten also is the command of the Fourth Commandment, "Honor Your Father and your Mother!" For more than two years I volunteered to help people in Dementia or Alzheimer's in a Nursing Home, my mission being to sit or walk, to listen or to talk with them. Our conversations were often disconnected but I would answer with a smile, letting God's Special People know that I cared. Often they would smile, sometimes one or the other would get agitated and once a fiesty lady scratched me in anger, which led me jokingly to ask a nurse for a "Purple Heart" as I was wounded in action! Like Moses who veiled his face blinded by light following his conversation with God on Mt. Siani, God's Special People in Dementia or Alzheimer's also have veiled faces and minds - their veling comes not from God's light but from God's darkness called suffering. Fortunately Psalm 138 says, with God, "Darkness and light are the same." So for them as for all, God's love continues unabated. And no one is exempt from such a Cross. My people included a Religious Sister and former principal, a medical doctor and a former army officer who on the battlefield was given an Officer's commission due to bravery. Also many Mothers and Fathers From the pinacle of Faith the greatest positive I can see regarding people in Dementia or Alzheimer's, is that, they are unable to offend God, thus for them the possibility of sin is over and in that way help to have made the Passion of Jesus a little less dreadful! They have become again like "little children" even to the wearing of diapers and as Jesus said, "Unless you become as a little child, you shall not enter the Kingdom!" And that's a grace underlined I think, in a special way by the very versitile prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola, especially applicable to Alzheimer people - "Take Lord and receive all my liberty, my memory my understand, entire will, all that I have ... your love and grace are enough for me." My heart goes out to Linda Rooney nd her Mom and all in the shadow of the Cross of Alzheimer's. God bless them all! At the same time I can't help but wonder that perhaps not too far down the pike I (we) may be on the same Cross, unable to communicate and in diapers! The thought makes me shudder, perhaps just as Jesus shuddered in the shadow of his Cross sweating Blood in the Garden of Olives!


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla clash with military police in the Policarpo Paz Garcia neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Jan. 20, 2018. Following a disputed election marred by irregularities, incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez was declared the victor and will be inaugurated on Jan. 27. The opposition does not recognize Hernandez's victory and are protesting against the result. (AP Photo/Fernando Antonio)
“You will see many protests during his mandate...because Honduras hasn’t fixed its age-old problems of inequality, exclusion, poor educational and health system, corruption and impunity.”
Melissa VidaJanuary 23, 2018
I want to be able to serve the state better. I want to be able to serve more of the state.
Nathan SchneiderJanuary 23, 2018
Formed in 2011, The Oh Hellos' Christianity is one of their foundational inspirations, evident in lines like "the only God I should have loved."
Colleen DulleJanuary 23, 2018
People gather at a June 14 candlelight vigil in Manila, Philippines, in memory of the victims of the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Philippine Catholic bishops called for vigilance against bullying, ostracism and harassment of gay people in the wake of the incident in which police said a lone gunman killed 49 people early June 12 at the club. (CNS photo/Mark R. Cristino, EPA)
“We are losing three generations of people, and we need to hear why,” said Bishop Mark O’Connell.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 23, 2018