When She Takes a Walk

Missing woman dies after exposed to extreme cold.

My Mom hadn't been working for a while. Before we'd admit anything to ourselves she'd been let go from her job, unable to learn new computer systems. So she'd been spending her days indoors, wandering from room to room, wiping down counters and dusting bookshelves. Every day she'd clean the catbox then walk to the end of our street where there was a "poop and scoop" deposit bin for the surrounding off-leash park. The walk was a good idea; it got her out of the house every day, into the fresh air.

When her diagnosis finally came I went home as soon as I could. I arrived on Boxing Day. It was a relief to my Dad to have someone in the house. He'd been leaving her alone, going to work. He couldn't afford not to. Still can't. On returning he'd often find the oven or the taps on. It's what we expected to happen, eventually. So having me there was one whole week without the stress. I would turn off the taps and the stove, if needed. I'd make her eat. And every day she went for that walk.

I joke that cold weather follows me: when I moved to Toronto at the end of February the temperature suddenly dropped; I went to LA this Christmas and was met with rain and 10 degree temperatures; that December, leading into January, Calgary denied me a Chinook, and instead greeted me with snow and minus 30. Still, every day my Mom bundled up, walked a little over five minutes each way, and deposited the catbox refuse. One morning, half-asleep in the basement bedroom, I heard the back doorbell ring. Initially I ignored it. It wasn't my house anymore, the caller wouldn't be there to see me. The doorbell kept ringing. Then I realised my mother had gone for her walk. It was my mother at the door, outside, in minus 30 degree weather. I raced up the stairs to let her in.

She'd lost her keys somewhere along the way. She insisted we go back out and look for them, in the howling wind, on every lawn, in any disturbed snowbank. We never did find her keys. I was completely shaken. This event, more than the diagnosis, made her disease real to me.

It was minus 30 and 9am. My Dad wouldn't return home until 4. This morning, when I heard the story of the woman who died, all I could think of was that cold day my Mom locked herself out.

I told her that she had to suspend these walks, at least for the winter, trying somehow to reconcile the fact that this was both my mother and a person I had to make rules for. Sounding like a mother myself, I said "You could have frozen to death out there!" I was so thankful she'd remembered, somehow, that I was there. She had enough in her to ring that doorbell. Though maybe she'd have rung it anyway, all day, waiting. It hurts to think about.

I didn't show my Mom how upset I was. I tried to be calm, but I was so young, and so unprepared for this to happen. That was a real taste of the times we'd have moving forward. All the changes for her life.

I read Tangles on Christmas day this year. It was painful to read, and after the bit about how Sarah Leavitt's Mom got lost the first time, I had to put the book down because I was crying too hard to see.
Before my visit I asked Mom if she would let me videotape her talking about having Alzheimer’s. She though that would be a good idea[…] She said she had made some notes about the day she got lost. This is that story without all the pauses:
"I knew I had to walk down Smythe Street to our house. Part way down, I got lost. I mean, I could see where I had to go, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there. It seemed so far away. I ended up outside Harvey’s, where you used to go, remember? So I went inside. A nice young man […] called me a cab and I told the driver what happened. 'I got lost because I have Alzheimer’s.' 'Alzheimer’s . Phew. That’s rough. My Dad had it, used to go out to the bar in the middle of the night.' People here are so kind. They really care. I’m so lucky.
This is my new bracelet. It’s from the police in case I get lost. But I’ll never go out again by myself.
After my Mom lost her keys that day, my Dad didn't replace them. He'd just lock the back door when he left, and hoped she didn't decide to go out the front door (which has a knob deadbolt, not one you'd need a key for). I don't know why it didn't occur to either of us just to change the lock. None of us were in our right minds. Thankfully, using the front door was something my family never did, and she'd never got the habit of leaving that way. At that stage, she was relying a lot on rote. Later that year, in the summer, she did leave by the front door once, and wound up deep into a different suburban neighbourhood. From what my Dad told me, a nice older lady -- older, for my mother wasn't even 60 yet -- managed to get my Mom talking enough to piece together where she lived, and got her home. They waited there for my Dad to get home from work. Mom got the bracelet then, though Dad also changed the locks. She never needed to use the bracelet; she would never go anywhere unattended for the rest of her life.


Anonymous said...

I JUST finished reading the article on The Star's website about that woman... how frightening.
I can't even begin to imagine what that feels like to deal with.. I remember bawling during The Notebook when (spoiler alert!) the woman remembers, and suddenly loses it all again. Such a feeling of helplessness... like there's nothing you can do about it :(
BTW, to end off on a slightly less depressing note, have you read Still Alice? Similar topic, very good read.

Astrocrabpuff said...

I can't imagine looking after either of my parents and they don't require me to yet; they're eternally in their middle-age in my memories and it takes a hard look to even acknowledge they are seniors let alone that one day they might need my care. Although I can imagine that moment, I don't know the depth and gamut of feeling you had when you realized your mother's illness even though reading your words gives me a great feeling of loss.