Into the Woods: A Daughter Copes with Her Mother's Alzheimer’s

Her mother loved to take long walks—until her mind began to fail and she couldn’t find her way. Here, a determined daughter tells how she battled the darkness

by Nancy Evans
woods image
Photograph: James Leighton/Gallerystock.Com

I was a woman possessed. I could have hired someone else to do the work, but the thought never occurred to me. The same Yankee spirit that led my mother to clean out the brooks along the bridle path when they became clogged with debris; that led me to clean out the woods behind our house when I was a kid to create a “boys keep out” club; that led my grandfather to clear the woods behind his house to make room for a giant wigwam for us grandchildren, had now taken hold of me. There was no branch so large that I couldn’t haul it to one of my piles. Twice I practically knocked my eyeball out with the end of a branch as I swung it around to throw on top of a heap. Sometimes I had to dig branches out of the snow.

By spring I had moved on to the land underneath, covered with all the green stuff that carpets a forest floor. I got down on my hands and knees and started yanking things out by the roots. Day after day, I pulled. I made the trail two people wide. After five days, I was one yard in. Weeks later, I was seven yards in. “Place the flags every 10 feet or so,” my brother said. When I’d made a clean path the distance of six flags, I pulled them out of the ground victoriously—but I had dozens more in front of me.

“Backbreaking work” was no longer a figure of speech. My back was breaking; my fingers were cut and callused (pulling up roots, I’d found, was better done with my bare hands than with gloves on). “Do you enjoy doing this?” Standing near me—I was now on flag 10—was a farmer who lived down the road. I told him I knew it was crazy what I was doing, but I was on a mission. I needed to get the trail done by the time it was warm. I needed to get it done for my mother. I needed to get it done before she didn’t know it was there. Before she didn’t know who I was.

“Roundup,” the farmer said. It would be a lot easier if I sprayed Roundup to kill the weeds. Actually, it would be a lot easier if he brought over his tractor. He could clear the path in a couple of hours. And so he came over and cleared the path. My brother, who’d been advising me long distance, arrived for a visit, and we rented a wood chipper and started work on all those 10-foot branch piles. With a snow shovel, I lifted the wood chips onto the newly cleared path. I had a sign made saying: Charlotte Burr Evans Walking Trail. Opened 2010. My brother hung it on the first tree at the entrance to the trail.

My mother was still living in her house. She didn’t want to leave it, even though she’d fallen down the stairs twice. She was an independent woman, dammit, and she would stay independent. Against her wishes, we’d gotten her a live-in companion. She couldn’t stand having someone else in the house. In fact, she couldn’t stand all the people she imagined were living in her house. She insisted there wasn’t just “this woman”—there were the three children who kept coming into her bedroom. One of them, she said, slept under her bed; the two others got right under the covers with her. She tried to persuade them to return to school. She said she would drive them (small detail: her license had been taken away when the police caught her driving on the wrong side of the road). And then there were the friends of my father, she said, who kept coming up the driveway. “Why don’t they bring your father with them?” she asked. She would like to see him. I told her so would I, but he died seven years ago. When she fell out of her bed, she thought she’d fallen in the woods. She’d been lying there for hours, she said, and was so relieved that she’d been found.

My brother continued cutting down trees that stood in the way of the path; I continued using the wood chips to define the trail and make it softer on the feet. We worked each day until there was no more sunlight. My sister arrived, and then we drove down to pick up our mom. She had gotten more fragile over the winter. She wasn’t eating much. This woman who had towered over me was now shorter than I was. When I cupped her arm to walk her to the trail, I could feel her bones. She was, as we found out a few days later when we put her on a scale, barely 100 pounds.

First published in the September 2012 issue

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