Alzheimer's takes a mother before she's gone

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Terry's daughters had noticed symptoms of dementia as far back as 15 years ago.


On May 9, Jillian Adamson lost her job.

The Minnesota native, who'd moved to the United Kingdom to be with her Scottish husband, spent the night glugging wine. As the credits rolled on Game of Thrones, her phone rang.

Both of her sisters were calling. Their mom was in hospice care. There wasn't much time.

Adamson was broke. On the advice of a friend, she sought charity through a GoFundMe account that sketched her sad plight.

The next morning she awoke hungover and embarrassed, and went to delete it, hoping no one had seen her plea. But she'd already collected several hundred dollars. By that afternoon, there was more than $3,000.

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Adamson flew home to say goodbye to her mother, Terry, one last time. In truth, she'd lost her years before.

Terry experimented with alcohol, men, and marriage from an early age. One night in the late 1970s, she fell down the stairs at what she thought was a liquor store. In fact, it was an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. At the moment she literally hit rock bottom, Terry met the man who would be her first long-term husband.

She got sober and married. Jillian came first, followed by two more girls, twins Rachael and Peggy. Their parents ran a makeshift halfway house. Close to 20 recovering addicts moved in for extended periods. The total guest list would eventually exceed 50.

Coffee was always on and cigarette smoke clouded rooms. The girls adjusted. They started answering the phone "Ham Lake Treatment Center. You drug 'em, we hug 'em."

One day in 1990, while the girls' father was out of town, Terry gathered her daughters in the living room, where cardboard boxes were stacked and waiting. She was leaving to be with one of their long-term boarders. She wrote a note for her husband, and left the girls in the care of the guests.

The girls' relationship with Terry never recovered. They didn't like the man she would soon marry. They remember him as intimidating, unhappy.

Jillian made the cleanest break. She dropped out of high school after an unplanned pregnancy, and left the baby in the care of the father, who was better able to afford it. She bounced through relationships and jobs, always unsettled, never making much effort to reconnect with Terry.

"I'd pretty much made the decision to not have that be part of my life," she says.

As adults, Rachael and Peggy saw their mother sparingly, mostly around Christmas, forced reunions that didn't shrink the gulfs of time and pain.

At the beginning of this century, Terry's behavior, always erratic, took a turn. She was suspended from her job as a bank teller when she made huge errors in simple math. The bank sent her to a doctor, who diagnosed her with Alzheimer's. She regressed dramatically.

A few years ago, during one of her obligatory holiday visits, Rachael discovered her mom filthy. This from a woman who'd worn Dior, kept perfectly groomed fingernails, once modeled for Regis beauty salons. It took multiple showers to get her clean.

The girls moved Terry into a memory care unit. Rachel and Peggy, both former personal care assistants, visited often. Jillian fell for a man she met online and moved, first to London, then to Edinburgh.

Exposure to their mom's eroding livelihood prepared Rachael and Peggy for the inevitable end.

"We were seeing this coming," Rachael says, "and a little more numb to the fact she was dying than Jillian."

Jillian flew in from Edinburgh and essentially moved into Terry's hospice care unit, seeking something other than blunt grief. The last good moment came when her mom, who had barely eaten or spoken in days, finally slurped some apple sauce. "You did really good!" the nurse said. "I could do better," Terry murmured.

The smartass remark was just the kind of thing Terry would've said. Back when she was herself.

Each sister tried to reconnect with a mother who by then rarely recognized them. Rachael, the most religious, recalls the moment she forgave Terry, crawling into bed to cuddle her weakened body.

Peggy and Jillian both found points in the final weeks to offer comfort, if not absolution. "I'm still sort of in the angry phase," Jillian says, beginning to cry.

Peggy tried giving her mom the same message three times. "You can go," she'd say. "We're going to be OK. You don't have to suffer anymore."

Mercy came June 4, with all of them gathered around Terry's bed. Rachael sang a hymn. Jillian started into Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz," more appropriate for Terry, who'd once had vague but fond memories of Woodstock. Soon all three sisters were singing. Within a minute of the song's end, Terry was gone.

In a cruel coincidence, the sisters each have crystalline memories of the worst moments in their lives. Jillian is a wizard with dates and dialogue. Peggy and Rachael paint vivid scenes of the various times and ways they lost their mom.

Terry's doomed fight was against memory itself, as each corner of her brain dimmed to darkness. From time to time she caught a glimpse of light through layers of black veil. Always, on the other side, she would find the faces of her daughters.

Now the four of them share the same peace, the only one. It's finally over. 

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