“This Was My Mother’s Nature.” A Trip to Yellowstone, in the Wake of an Alzheimer’s Diagnosis
Steph Jagger on Experiencing an “Infinite Storm of Beauty” with Her Mother
“The way we deal with loss shapes our capacity to be present to life more than anything else. The way we protect ourselves from loss may be the way in which we distance ourselves from life.”
–Rachel Naomi Remen
My mother and I arrived in Bozeman on June 6. We deplaned, picked up our luggage, and walked over to the rental car desks. “I’ve never done this before,” my mother announced with excitement as we stood waiting for the attendant to hand us the keys to our car.
This, of course, was not true. But what is truth anyway?
We stayed at a small Airbnb that night, and we laughed over pizza and beer. That felt like truth.
But will it stay that way, I thought, or will it slip into the arena of a lie when she doesn’t remember any of it the very next day?
In the morning, we went to the grocery store to stock up on oatmeal and eggs, apples and Babybel cheese. We got some coffee and a few cans of Campbell’s tomato rice soup. My mother loved that soup. That felt like truth—but was it truth if I had to remind her of it?
At about ten in the morning we drove out of Bozeman and made a quick stop at a small bookstore in a town called Livingston. I bought a postcard for my grandmother, something I’d always done when I traveled. She had been gone for close to six months, but I felt like I had to buy one anyway.
This, I thought to myself. This is truth. But even then I wasn’t sure.
We drove down the stretch of road that runs from Pray, Montana, to the northern entrance of Yellowstone, the road that runs all the way to Boiling River. Otherwise known as Paradise Valley. A handful of miles in, I watched a spell come over my mother. I knew it took place because I watched my mother’s face as it cracked wide open and burst into tears. She cried her way through that whole stretch of road on the morning we drove it. A levee, one I never knew existed inside of her, broke clean away.
Have you ever been to a place that cast a spell on you? A place that sent a mesmerizing spark, a scattershot of luminescence, flying through the air and right on into your bloodstream? I’ve been to a few of these places, but Yellowstone National Park stands out as the most magical. The most potent of portals.
For me it has something to do with the bison. They look like an answer to a prayer. Like if a person was crying and alone and they asked God to send them something or someone who understood, I think she might send a bison, or perhaps a whole herd. Something that would help them run into the storm, through the clouds and the driving rain, through the electricity of it all, clear to the other side. I think, perhaps, that’s what I had been doing all those years in my bedroom. I think I’d been praying for bison.
There’s something prehistoric about them—like they come from a time and a place where the heartbeat of everything around us could be heard, could be felt through hooves that pounded the earth.
Every time I see a herd of bison it throws me back in time and flips me forward at once—like I’ve been hit with some sort of reminder, an omen that I need to watch what I carry, and I need to watch what carries me. Every time I see a bison, I am reminded that it is okay to be the one who runs into the storm.
My mother cried something fierce that morning on the road.
So much so, I finally pulled the car off to the side. “Mom?” I asked. “What’s happening?”
I was genuinely concerned she was hurt in some way. “Are you okay?” I went on. “Why are you crying?”
Nerves bounced up and down in my body. I wasn’t sure what to do, nor how or who to be in this moment with her.
“Mom?!” I asked again.
It took her some time to find her voice, but when she did, she said three careful words:
“It’s so beautiful.”
I felt suddenly calm. I didn’t know a lifetime of thirst could be slaked with three words. I grabbed her hand and sat back in my seat. We stared out the window at the river valley brushed out before us, the mountains rising up in every direction. It was, using Annie Dillard’s words, “an infinite storm of beauty.”
Emigrant Peak and the rest of the Absaroka Mountains climbed up to the east and the Gallatin Range up to the west. We were held in this place in between. It was a cradle, a womb made of river water and stone. And even though I couldn’t see it, I knew there was a great thaw occurring right there in front of us. Somewhere in those mountains the snow was melting; huge volumes of water were tumbling down from the peaks, rushing right into the creeks and streams that feed the Yellowstone River. A thaw like that can be painful at first. An aching pulse that beats inside your fingertips.
“Look,” she said, as if she’d never laid eyes on a river valley or been anchored somewhere in the mountains. “Look at all this nature.”
And with that simple incantation, the spell for our entire trip was cast. This was my mother in nature. This was Mother Nature. This was my mother’s nature. I’d seen them on their own, but I’d never really witnessed them partner together. Not like this.
My mother took a hitched breath in and let a long sigh out. A sign she was ready to keep going. I checked for traffic and slowly pulled the car back onto the road. About six or seven miles later, I felt my mother lean slightly in toward my right shoulder.
“I’ve been here before,” she whispered.
This, of course, was not true. But who was I to say who my mother was, what her truth was, where she had or had not been?
I didn’t know very many answers when it came to my mother. I didn’t know very many questions either. Everything I had ever done, every choice I’d ever made, had been a desperate attempt to prove I didn’t need anything from my mother. My swift move in the opposite direction, the sizeable ego I’d built up around our differences—all of it, my entire life, had been fabricated using the following mantra, the subconscious stitching that said: I will not become my mother.
How many times had I whispered these words, or some variation of them, to my friends: “Oh god, I’m turning into her, aren’t I? Please don’t let me turn into my mother.”
How many times had my sister and I rolled our eyes together before saying, “Stop. That is so Mom. Stop right now.” You can’t. How many times had I disagreed with people when they told me I looked like my mom, was like my mom, or reminded them of her in any way?Have you ever been to a place that cast a spell on you? A place that sent a mesmerizing spark, a scattershot of luminescence, flying through the air and right on into your bloodstream?
“Really?” I’d ask. “I don’t see it.” And I didn’t. This wasn’t a lie. No evidence of our similarities existed in my head.
Inside all of this had been an unconscious but forceful shove. A rejection that ran so deep it became seamless, invisible even to me. What a mysterious thing it is, to reject some part of yourself with such ferocity that you genuinely no longer see it. And perhaps even more so, that you forget it even exists.
As we drove through the rest of the valley, I realized that I’d never known the answers to the questions about who my mother really was. The wholeness of her truth had been evasive, was felt fleetingly. Was that because she didn’t want to be known, or because I’d pushed her away? Was it because some piece had gone missing? Was it because she didn’t know her whole self and thus couldn’t share it—verbally or otherwise? I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure. Some things are so easy to be sure about; others… others feel like a watery confluence.
I am asked a fair number of questions about my mother and her Alzheimer’s, but there is one question that stands out from the bunch, one question that is asked the most.
“How did you know?” they ask. “I mean, how did you know for sure?”
This question is not being asked in curiosity’s tone, nor for curiosity’s sake.
There are currently 5.8 million people in America living with Alzheimer’s. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, another person in the United States develops the disease every 65 seconds.
The question I get about my mother isn’t actually a question, but rather, a begging. People are pleading for something not to be true. Just underneath the queries, I hear whispered voices slipping through.
“Dear God,” I hear them say. “Please not her. Please not him. Please not us.”Alzheimer’s doesn’t just appear out of nowhere; it’s not a surprise-party kind of disease. There are signs. It’s a slow and steady build.
I know all of this because that’s what we were saying too. I don’t remember my mother being diagnosed. I don’t remember receiving the news, or if it came by way of a somber phone call or an emotional email. Obviously, it happened, and common sense tells me I would have heard the news from my father, but I don’t remember for sure.
None of the days or weeks soaked up by the summer of 2015 stand out in my mind as important markers in our family’s Alzheimer’s story arc. I know this sounds insensitive—like how is it possible that I can recall the exact place in which I stood, as well as the feeling of my fingertips gently circling over top of my maroon-colored skirt, when the news broke about the death of Princess Diana, but I can’t pull up a single thread of memory about the moment I was told my mother had Alzheimer’s?
My answer to that, if it is in fact a question, is this—I already knew.
Alzheimer’s doesn’t just appear out of nowhere; it’s not a surprise-party kind of disease. There are signs. It’s a slow and steady build. It’s like the family of mice that are currently living somewhere inside the walls of our kitchen. I was not surprised when we caught the first one. That wasn’t the moment I announced, “We have mice!” I knew it months prior to the first snap of the trap.
It started with wondering. The temperatures had dropped low enough to warrant some heat, and about an hour after turning the thermostat up I smelled something funny. Weeks later, I thought about it briefly when I noticed a small hole in the plywood behind the kitchen sink. And I considered it a possibility when we found two traps in the pantry, set by the previous owners of the house. But it was well into winter before I added it all up, before I voiced what I already knew to be true. “We have mice,” I said, when we came home to a spilling of small, black droppings close to the garbage can—the one that lived under the sink, with the mice, obviously.
It took months, and visible mouse shit, before I allowed myself to be certain, before I called the truth the truth.
This is how it was with my mother’s Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis itself wasn’t shocking or traumatic for me. It was as obvious as the mice—the evidence was everywhere. Little pieces of it were being placed in front of me, one after another, begging me to take on the role of Miss Marple in an Agatha Christie play about things going missing in my mother’s brain. Evidence was being dropped for all of us, but evidence like that isn’t something we’re excited to find. More often than not we ignore these small clues. We turn the other way, we convince ourselves we didn’t see what we saw, we ignore it, we script it into a different story, and we tell ourselves there is some other, very good, totally explicable reason for the signs we are seeing.
“Half of being in a family is just ignoring stuff,” said author Omar El Akkad, and my family… we lived this.
“She’s been stressed about Granny. Once Granny’s in the care home, Mom will relax.”
“Look, she’s never been good with names. Give her a break.” “Remember that time she typed a whole email into the subject line because she didn’t know how to move the cursor into the body of the email—she never learned how to use email on the computer, never mind email on her phone. Get off her back.”
“She’s in her sixties, of course she’s going to forget a word here or there. Leave her alone.”
The last bits of those sentences—that was how I knew.
Anytime something surfaced, the collective response was something like, “Leave her alone.”
But the truth is—we weren’t saying, “Leave my mother alone.” We were saying, “Leave me alone.” We were saying, “I’m scared,” and “I don’t want this to be true,” and “I won’t be able to handle it if it is.” We were begging, “Please not her. Please not us. Please not this.”
Excerpted from Everything Left to Remember. Used with the permission of the publisher, Flatiron Books. Copyright © 2022 by Steph Jagger.