People love telling you, it seems, how you will go on after a loved one passes. Life will continue, they tell you it will just take time before you feel better. But for those who loved my mother, life went on, during her torment from Alzheimer’s disease. We watched as she went from a ball of energy, her will and energy never fleeting to someone quite different. She was someone quite changed, not really who she was before being afflicted by the hellish disease.
She came from German stock, her parents were immigrants to the US, from Germany, through Canada. Her parents were not wealthy, and during the Great Depression with four other siblings she was faced with lessons of living that only the traditional German work ethic helped make less hungry. Mom learned to deal with problems and stress by working, Arbeit Macht Frei is a phrase in German that means Labor sets you free. The expression comes from the title of a novel by German philologist Lorenz Diefenbach, Arbeit macht frei: Erzählung von Lorenz Diefenbach (1873), in which gamblers and cheats find the path to virtue through labor.
She lived Arbeit Macht Frei like no one else I know. As a child I would wake up from not being able to sleep well, or having not been able to actually fall asleep, and would come down to find her ironing clothes, watching late night television, and she’d be up the next morning before dawn, to get the day ready for her family. She did this all the time. If labor sets you free, she was more free than anyone could be.
But it wasn’t simply her ethnic heritage, nor her growing up during the Great Depression that made her so able to focus her energies, and live upon little sleep. She was driven to survive, first by dealing with achieving a life better than she’d grown up with. Then to create a family, to be parents to children with her husband Donnie. But while both my mom and father worked hard, and managed to make a life better than some, they were unable to conceive children, despite medical help. They turned to adoption, and made a life for children who might not have had a life so good elsewhere. And then, when my mother held my brother, then a baby, to her breast to comfort him, she noticed her nipple was sore. Since the child was not birthed from her, she knew something was wrong. She saw her doctor, and learned that she had breast cancer. Immediately she feared not only the cancer, which in 1961 was still a mysterious disease, but she feared losing her precious gift, her newly adopted child. It wasn’t an unfounded fear, she was facing the unknown.
She beat cancer. And then it returned. And when it returned she had adopted, with Donnie, her second child, me. She worried that she’d die, but again that she would lose her adopted children. She beat cancer again, this time losing not only her breast but her lymph nodes.
She beat cancer. She beat poverty. She did so through will. She was a tough German facing a challenge, a sort of combat, and she beat it through superior will.
Whatever memories people have of my mother, they remember her for her energy, for her constant motion and her will. She loved life, dancing, and coffee. She was hard to deal with sometimes, she was stubborn, but her heart is why she was stubborn. She refused to lose.
So now in her memory, when all I want is to not exist without her, I am going to do what she taught me, refuse to lose, and go on. It isn’t what I want. It is what she’d want. And that is enough for me.