Monday, June 17, 2013

Light and Shadow

In the early morning hours of June, my Japanese maple reproduces itself in shadows on the back of the house, a dark replica.

The charcoal-colored stars move and dance in the morning breeze that blows in from the Bay Area, but you can't touch them; it's only a trick of the light, only real to the eye. The actual tree is as high as the roof, with red leaves in the spring turning green as summer approaches. We watch carefully to see the first tiny red buds in February, lament the scorched edges of the leaves during July's inevitable 110 degree heat wave, stroke the graceful branches when we walk past it on the pool deck.

Nearly three years after my mother's death from Alzheimer's, I'm still working on coming to grips with what the disease did to her. Nothing about Alzheimer's is fair; plaques of a protein begin cutting off brain function, nerve by nerve: memories go, and recognition, and body function. As the nerves are cut off, they die of starvation. The victim is tied into an ever-decreasing circle, populated by ghosts and strangers. What are they saying? Why have they come for me? Is it any wonder that Alzheimer's patients are so aggressive, so angry, so determined to fight? All that's left is that fight or flight response, and there's nowhere left to run.

My God, my mother got so mean when the disease began to take her. She said things that hurt me so badly that I'd cry afterwards -- not even things about me, but just hearing such viciousness coming from her now-husky voice was like a serrated dagger slashing at the figure I'd known and admired most of my life.

I look at the shadows on the wall, the outline of the Japanese maple given a manner of shape by the absence of light. That was what my mother became: not a reality but an illusion. And illusion is not what I should remember. The illusion changes and disappears within an hour; Alzheimer's tormented us for years, but in the end, Alzheimer's need not last. For Mom, it's gone and done, and it can never touch her again. She doesn't need to be a shadow in my mind.

She grew that Japanese maple from seed, for me. The tree is a reminder for Alex of her grandmother's prowess at gardening, and a tangible connection with a woman who was brave and bold. Her daughter, Lillian, has never known life without that tree being there. Four generations of our lineage have touched it.

I want to see the tree first, not the shadows. The living, not the illusion. The creature, not the absence of light. And just as the shadows of the Japanese maple are beautiful in their darkness, maybe someday I'll see the precious glimpse of human frailty in my mother's death.

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