77: Herbert

77: Herbert

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias


A mother is a mother from the moment her baby is first placed in her arms until eternity.

~Sarah Strohmeyer

Mama’s last child, Herbert, came into her life when she was eighty-seven. He was a rosy-cheeked fellow with one tiny white tooth. Dressed in newborn-size baby clothes and a pair of white shoes with my mother’s name written in black marker on the soles, he tricked several people into believing he was real. Herbert was just a doll, but to my mama, he was a real child, and he became part of our family.

Mama acquired Herbert when she was in the late stage of Alzheimer’s, a time when it was almost impossible for her to tell us what she felt, thought, needed, or wanted. But we learned, in this stage, just how deep her maternal instincts ran. She had devoted sixty of her eighty-eight years to caring for children or grandchildren, and she was warm, loving, and devoted. Holding a child in her arms was as natural to her as breathing, and being a good mother and grandmother was her mission in life. She was happiest when she was doing something for children, as she lovingly sacrificed her time, energy, and resources to make them happy — baking favorite desserts, helping with homework, having tea parties, wrestling with action figures, and playing board games.

And we, her children, desperately wanted to save her from the devastation of Alzheimer’s. The disease forced us to reverse roles as she gradually lost the ability to understand and react to the world. Bit by bit, over eight years, she lost herself — memory, reading, writing, talking, the ability to care for herself, and ultimately, the ability to swallow. She was now the one who needed help, eventually moving into a nursing home where she could have the necessary supervision and professional care.

We tried to salvage any peace or pleasure we could in her new environment. When her mental capacity reached end stage but her physical body remained strong, she was trapped in a strange, dangerous, lonely world we could reach on only rare occasions. Hearing of the comfort that doll therapy can sometimes bring to people with Alzheimer’s, we bought the lifelike doll that came to be known as Herbert.

We quickly learned that in Mama’s eyes Herbert was real. Alzheimer’s had long since robbed her of coherent conversation. But to our amazement, shortly after we gave her Herbert, she not only found the tune but also the words of a hymn to lull her baby to sleep as she rocked him in her arms. She still knew how to be a devoted caregiver.

Through her gestures and facial expressions, we learned Herbert was to be handled correctly, fed, admired, and loved. Shortly after Herbert came into her life, my brother was visiting, and needed to move Herbert, so he picked him up by the leg and dropped him in another spot. Her horror was apparent, and I suspect if she had had the capacity to call social services, we might have had some explaining to do. She also wanted to share her meals with Herbert. At mealtime, she would motion for us to spoon some of the food in Herbert’s mouth as well. She was immensely proud of him.

I admit, at age fifty-seven, it felt a bit strange to be jealous of a doll. Herbert was her child, and I was… what? It was hard to determine if she knew me as anyone other than someone who came to visit. She would often focus her attention on Herbert rather than her “real” children who were trying to interact with her. She would point at him as she beamed proudly at his cute antics. She held and snuggled and cared; Herbert gave her back her greatest mission in life. She may have lost coherent words but not her ability to love her children.

Herbert was with her 24/7 and could accompany her to places we could not. When she fell or was sick and had to ride in the ambulance to the hospital, he went with her. Herbert had X-rays and MRIs along with her, and some of the hospital staff even came to know his name. We ensured that Herbert was by her side each time we left.

Eventually, the day arrived when not even Herbert could reach into Mama’s world. A few days later, once again, he went with her as he rode to the funeral home snuggled in her arms. The next time we saw him, he was in her casket.

How I wish I could tell Mama how very proud I am of her. With Herbert’s help, she showed the world that nothing — not even Alzheimer’s — was stronger than her love for her children.

~Dale Adams O’Neill

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