By Brady Jensen
My mom’s 10-year decline with Alzheimer’s disease began when she was 55 and ended last year. I miss her more than anything and have for the last few years.
On Valentine’s day last year, I was snowed in and started writing down my thoughts. My mom used to make my brothers and me foot-by-foot pink heart-shaped sugar cookies topped with a cursive-frosting love message every year on Valentine’s day. I can still remember being apprehensive to break apart the masterpiece and eat it. The cookies would sit on our kitchen island for the next few days until they were reduced to crumbs you had to pinch off the parchment paper. They were easily her best creation.
I remembered the time all my friends made the Little League All-Stars baseball teams and I didn’t. She dropped me off for elementary school and stopped me before I slid through the gate and onto the playground. She said “Brady, you’re my little all-star and I (she pointed to her eye) love (she hugged herself) you (and pointed at me).” She continued to use that gesture throughout my childhood.
Evident in pictures, home videos and my memory, my mom made it her life’s work to love and spoil her three children. Over time, you forget most things people say or do, but you always remember how they made you feel. She was a master at making me and many others feel loved.
The Hopelessness of the Early Years
I knew next to nothing about Alzheimer’s until I witnessed my mom’s decline beginning the year I returned home from college. I held onto a voicemail from her for a long time in which she called me to let me know she couldn’t find her parked car in the mall parking lot after shopping. In her sweet way, she ended the voicemail with “Anyways, I love you Brady Jensen.” That message was one of the first of many hopeless feelings I had of not being able to help her.
Soon after returning from college, we had a family meeting to discuss my mom’s misfirings. I remember that meeting like it was yesterday. She didn’t say a lot and she didn’t have to. Her body language said it all. She was curled up in a ball, feet on the edge of her seat and her forearms wrapped around her knees pressed against her chest. She was so scared of what was to come. It’s unfortunately one of the many sad days tattooed on my brain as a memory of my mom. It was one of the worst days of the whole journey for me.
It took a couple of years to get an official diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s dementia. As soon as we had a diagnosis, I began spending countless hours researching every potential cure and pursued every article that would have some sort of hope — a healthy habit change, medicine or a new gene therapy. There was a year straight where I would search “Alzheimer’s cure” a few times a week, just to find that one new breakthrough article. I found nothing, and to this day, I haven’t found much delivering hope to friends and family of people facing Alzheimer’s.
Caring for Mom Like She Cared for Me
I lived at home for four years after college, and spent a lot of time with my mom since she could no longer work or drive her car. This should have been a time when our relationship deepened, but Alzheimer’s had other plans. At first, I regrettably became frustrated with her when she would forget what I just told her, repeat herself or ask the same questions back-to-back. I never tried to show it, although I am sure she sensed my annoyance when I would become quiet and short with her. Any noticeable frustration I showed pains me to this day.
With the help of my Dad, I developed the mindset to take care of her the way she took care of me growing up — to contain my frustrations, and love on her the same way she loved on me. It turned out, everything I needed to know, I had already learned from my mom. It takes time to understand the words she learned all those years, sitting in a church pew. I had heard of words like grace, compassion, forgiveness and patience but I needed Alzheimer’s to drill the true meaning of those words into my brain.
I learned how to interact with my mom over time. My, “No mom, that doesn’t go there,” became “That looks perfect right there.” I let her put the hand towels in the refrigerator only to take them out ten minutes later when she wasn’t looking. I let her wash the countertops five minutes after she just washed them. I let her cycle the same clothes through the washer and dryer multiple times in one day. I showed her how to work the TV controller weekly. Moments like these would leave her embarrassed and sad about her condition. When she realized she had done something off, she would cry. I wish I could go back in time, give her the biggest hug and take her out on the most extravagant date she had ever been on.
The Way I Choose to Remember Her
In her heyday, my mom was a proud high school sweetheart, wife, mother of three boys, a daughter who loved her parents dearly, a salon business owner, prideful conservative and peace sign lover. She loved girlfriend coffee dates, a good book, a backseat motorcycle ride, trips to Europe and listening to Christian pop music. She was best friends with Jesus Christ and Sundays weren’t the only day of the week she was praising God. She loved her pet cats Mischief and Sydney, horse Scotch, goat Wags and dogs Buffalo, Chips, Elizabeth, Cooper and Palin. She led youth groups, empowered many women at her salon, wrote to her pen pal sponsor child in Haiti for eight years and impacted many other lives.
She lived a life she was proud of, but for the last five years of her life, she couldn’t remember — or at least she couldn’t communicate that she remembered — who she was. She not only lost her most basic, primitive brain functions, but also everything she knew and loved.
Losing Her to Alzheimer’s
In the worst stages, this disease makes you miss someone that is right there in the same room with you. I began to miss her more and more every day. That same feeling of hopelessness I had with the voicemail from the early days woke me up in the middle of the night countless times. If I went a couple of weeks without physically seeing her, I would start to have the same recurring dream: She would try to say something and couldn’t get it out or do something and she couldn’t do it. Unable to help, I would hug her and we would cry together. That’s when I would wake up, sometimes with a tear in my eye. Sometimes I could go back to sleep right away, sometimes it kept me up for hours. I had that dream over a 100 times in the last ten years.
When my mom passed, I was shocked at how hard it hit me. I thought I had rid myself of every tear left in my body, but nope. I cried myself to sleep the night I said goodbye to her for the last time and those tears kept coming the next day and the next couple of days after that.
Missing Precious Life Moments
I will never wrap my head around how this happened to such an angel. I am still searching for an answer to “why?” It’s hard to not be bitter and have anger over the cards she was dealt later in life. My mom missed out on so many precious life moments. My nieces and nephews will never know how great my mom really was. My future kids won’t get to know their grandma. She never got a chance to develop a relationship with my wife.
Even before she passed, she was missing those precious moments — like dancing with me on my wedding day. The song was “Heavenly Day” by Patty Griffin. It talks about having a rare heavenly day, even though the clouds may roll in tomorrow. I so wish I could have had that moment with my mom, but Alzheimer’s had other plans. A few weeks before my wedding, she was having serious trouble standing, so we made the decision to not bring her along to the wedding. She passed away three months later.
You have these plans to spoil them into a good day, and no matter how hard you try and will that to happen, the disease has other plans. I can’t tell you how many times in the past ten years the disease has had other plans.
Keeping Her Memory Alive
I have already found some comfort in her passing. The relief that she has no more pain or confusion anymore is oddly comforting, and there have been some magical coincidences happen since she passed — like seeing yellow butterflies everywhere the week after she passed away or turning on the TV and realizing that her favorite movie, Momma Mia, is about to come on.
My wife’s and mom’s birthdays are a day apart and they both chose to be lifelong hairstylists. Little things like this bring so much comfort to me. Home videos, pictures, and scrolling through her old Facebook posts to relive her sweet and positive attitude have helped.
Seeing 150 people show up for her funeral was an amazing feeling. At her celebration of life, while talking to her old friends and people I hadn’t seen in a long time, I felt like James Cameron exploring the Titanic to learn more and more. Peeling back the rust, barnacles and corals to reveal the true beauty and magnificence that was. I will always try to pull out any new information I can about who my mom was and keep that at the forefront of my mind when I think about her.
Our church pastor shared a quote from my mom at her funeral. Hearing it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up because it reminded me so much of who she was. In an email, she wrote, “Pastor Kurt, I keep forgetting to email you about the service a few weeks ago. That sermon was so great! The worship was so wonderful. I could have stayed all day. What a great day to go out into the world so full of God’s love.” I want to take this exuberant positive attitude with me as I go on without her.
There Is No Love Like a Mother’s Love
I often talk to my mom in my head and see her smiling down on me in my imagination. Memories of her often play like flashback movie scenes in my head. There is no love like a mother’s love. I love you Taryn Jensen and I can’t wait to see you on the other side.
Valentine’s Day can be a particularly sentimental time for people living with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones. The Alzheimer’s Association is here to provide support and resources. Here are three ways to connect:
1. Call us: We are available around the clock, 365 days a year at 1.800.272.3900. Dial 711 to connect with a TRS operator.
2. Chat with us: Click the “Live Chat” green button on this page to connect with a member of our Helpline staff. Live chat is typically available from 5 a.m.-5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.
3. Online: Use this form to let us know how we can help you. We will respond to you within 24 hours.