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

  My mother was always a walker. Every day she would put on her Scandia Woods socks, pull them over her pants and slip on her L.L.Bean gumshoes. Pulling the socks over the pants was a critical step. She’d already had Lyme disease twice, and she was doing her best not to get it again. Where she walked was on the old bridle path next to her house in Connecticut. People used to ride there when I was a kid. Now it was closed off to horses and to people; too many kids had used it for drinking parties, and the wetlands folks had introduced so many rules about what had to be done to make the land “passable” that the woman who owned it, a friend of my mom’s, said enough and put up a keep out sign. Only my mom had permission to keep walking there. As she moved along, she’d pick up any branches that had fallen in her path. She was the keeper of the trail.

Four years ago, when my mother was 84, I bought a country house farther up in Connecticut, where the bridle paths were many and still open to the public. The woods on my property were as dark and deep as those in the Robert Frost poem. There was no trail. The underbrush was thick and prickly.

By the time I got the house, my mom wasn’t walking as much. To cut through her woods to get to the bridle path, she’d started using the walking stick my sister had provided. She’d fallen once on the trail, she told us. And she almost couldn’t get herself up. We urged her to take along the cell phone we’d given her, so she could call for help, but she usually forgot it. Anyway, she said, she didn’t really know how to use it. We gave her instructions more than once. But she kept forgetting. One day, she said, she was on the bridle path and couldn’t remember how to get home. That was about the time she sent my daughter, her granddaughter, a birthday card addressed to one of our cousins. It was signed not “Grammy” but “Charlotte,” her first name.

That winter I became obsessed with making a trail through my own woods to give our mother a place to walk when she visited—and a daily activity if she eventually came to live with me. There were enough pieces of flatland to lace through that it would be an easy walk. The beginning and end of the trail would come out on the lawn, from which you could see the house. It would be a path my mother could walk without getting lost.

Here’s the thing about woods: Trees shed branches, sort of the way people shed hair. So the floor of my woods was covered with branches. You could barely move without tripping over one that was hidden under the leaves, which had been collecting there for years. So, step one: Pick up branches.

Actually, step one, said my brother, was “flag” the trail. Once I decided where the trail was going, I needed to mark it. He said I could get flags at the hardware store, but mine didn’t carry them. I ordered them online: 200 for $60. I staked flags where the trail would be. That took three days. Now the woods were dotted with bright red pennants, which looked almost garish on the bare winter terrain.

Every day I’d bundle up and go out there to gather branches. I’d make a pile. Some “branches” were small swamp trees that I could pull up by their roots. Pretty soon there were three piles, then six, then dozens. The piles grew, day after day, until they were taller than I was. “Make the piles by the trail,” my brother told me. “That way we can chip them and spread them out.”

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.

We got her to the entrance of the trail, where I’d moved a rock out of the way because I knew she wouldn’t be able to step over it. The invasive barberry had been hacked back. We walked a few feet in. Look at the sign, we said. “Charlotte Burr Evans Walking Trail,” she read out loud. “For me,” she said. My sister took a picture of my mother flanked by my brother and me. She was smiling broadly by the sign, standing proudly with her kids.

With my brother and me supporting her, she made it as far as the first bench. I’d put in so many benches along the trail, knowing she would need to rest, that it looked like a furniture factory. So my mother and I sat on the bench. She said it was beautiful here in the woods. I agreed that it was. She turned to me. “You didn’t just do this for me, did you?” She had the look I remember from when I was a kid, when she was teaching me a lesson. “You did it for you, too.” She was right about that. I had done it for me, too. I’d wanted her to be the mother I’d known, the woman who walked straight and tall and fast. I thought if I created a safe place for her, she would continue to be that person. She would keep walking, maybe a little more slowly, but still doing the thing that had given her so much pleasure her entire life. Now I realized she’d never be that woman again. She said she was tired. We walked back to the house. She took a nap.

That was the last time she saw the trail. Pretty soon she was napping through the day. She continued to pick at her food. She kept looking for my father, who she was sure was in the driveway. She wanted to know where her dog was. But you don’t have a dog, I said. Of course I do, she told me. And where, she asked, was my younger sister? I told her I didn’t know because I didn’t have one. Of course you do, she said. Her name is Nancy. But I’m Nancy, I said. Two weeks after we opened the trail, we took my mother to a place for people with Alzheimer’s. I didn’t know what else to do.

When I walk the trail by myself these days, I often think about her. She uses a walker now, and as her memory goes, she sometimes fails to remember how to put one foot in front of the other. But I know that she saw, really saw, the gift we had made for her. And I like to think that in her dreams she is still walking, straight and tall and fast like the woman she used to be. The path she’s on is the Charlotte Burr Evans Walking Trail. She is heading home.

NANCY EVANS is finishing a book titled A Year in the Country, about learning to calm down after 40 years of working nonstop in the city. Her last piece in More was about finally learning how to cook.

Click here for a past Attitude piece on living together as a blended familiy.

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First Published Wed, 2012-08-01 09:46

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