Listening to the onset of dementia.

I learned that my mother had dementia during phone calls.

It wasn't just one call when my father calmly discussed symptoms, revealed a diagnosis, explained a medical condition, and tried to prepare his offspring for what was to come.

"Your mother has had some memory issues lately," my father might have said during such a phone conversation. "She has problems focusing and reasoning and communicating her thoughts. So we spoke with her doctor and he believes there are medical reasons."

In that conversation dad would have noted that there is no cure for dementia, no effective treatment that does any more than "temporarily improve symptoms," according to the website for Alzheimer's Association.

But, those were facts for a later date, when mom's condition had worsened, and it became documented that the disease had begun to steal her from us.

Initially, instead of a single conversation, my first suspicions that something was wrong were raised through a series of phone calls.

Those calls showed me — made me sense — that the order of my family's world was shifting.

Knowing My Mom

Mom almost always was the organizer in our family.

While my father worked long hours as a carpenter — provided for us — Mom offered stability to our home. She paid bills and she sent greetings to friends and relatives celebrating special occasions. Mom worried over the details of family outings and prepared the house for visiting neighbors and relatives.

When I moved to Ohio, far away from our home in western New York, phone calls came mostly from my mother. And when I called home, her voice likely was the first one I heard.

"Let me get your father on the other phone," she often would say, and his voice — "Hello" — would follow. But, dad, reticent in his telephone talk, would say little else, other than perhaps commenting on sports events or asking about topics I might have written about in my job as a journalist. Every now and then he would add a "Yep," in agreement, or a "Pretty good" in answer to a query about his work.

The heftiest chunks of news about family life were provided by mom. She had her gift of gab, as my father sometimes kidded her.

Then Things Changed

The evolution of our telephone conversations was a gradual one. Still, it was easy to recognize the change. First, I noticed, the "gab" became repetitive.

"Did I tell you?" my mother would ask, before launching back into a story about one of my siblings. Dad would answer, gently, "Yes you did, hon," then deflect the conversation into toward another topic.

Dad began talking more often in our conversations, I noticed. And, when my mother called him to the extension, he seemed to answer it in more haste. Sooner than I would have hoped, he was answering my calls at the outset, or dialing my number when he and my mom called.  

"Let me put your mother on the other phone," at some point he began saying.

She would talk, too, at first. As mom's diseased progressed — by this time it was diagnosed and discussed — she merely would add comments, contributions to the conversation that shortened, eventually, to sentences of few words.

Finally, she mostly just listened to what was being said.

"Here, I'll let you say good-bye to your mom," dad would say at the conclusion of those later calls. Usually, my words of "Bye mom" and "I love you," went unanswered.

She was tired, dad would excuse on those occasions. "But, she smiled," he would add.

And, hearing that from my father, I would smile, as well.

There comes a time in conversations — in life — when a smile seems enough.