Mom’s Last Laugh 

May 1, 2024 | Robin Bond | |

I will always remember the last time Mom laughed. It was in January 2023, just weeks before we lost her to Alzheimer’s.

From the start, Mom had all the textbook symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. I was visiting her and Dad at their South Carolina lake house on Mother’s Day weekend in 2018 when Mom told me the white mansion on the peninsula was for sale for one hundred dollars, which sounded like a lot to her. (See early Alzheimer’s signs.) That afternoon, she was unable to read the menu at her favorite pizza place, so I gently reminded her how much she loved pepperoni and mushrooms. She beamed, and I whispered our order to the server. 

Fast forward to February 2020, when the nation was learning the term “novel coronavirus.” My sister Leigh and I (she lived in New York, and I lived in Denver) were forced to move Mom and Dad from their South Carolina home to an assisted living facility that claimed it could handle both Mom’s Alzheimer’s and Dad’s veritable potpourri of heart disease, diabetes, and vascular dementia.

By then, Mom was showing new Alzheimer’s symptoms I’d never heard of. Anything she touched or put on her body, she would say, was “wet.” Not cold, which is the word I think she was trying to access, but wet. She would cut her own bangs almost daily while her med tech and I searched in vain for her hidden scissors. At last, we found and removed Dad’s old mustache scissors from under the sink. Mom’s hair grew back, but she soon became a flight risk. We were forced to move her to a locked memory-care facility across the street, away from Dad.

Mom had always loved to sing and to laugh, and that stayed true till the end. Experts on aging say that music remains with some Alzheimer’s patients because regions of the brain involving music and memory are less affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia. I knew this was true for Mom as I watched her sing in her trademark falsetto the hymns from our Baptist upbringing, accompanied by a Sunday morning piano player in her memory care unit.

Mom was a complicated person, even before the disease. During my school years, we would be talking about something benign, like how my math test had gone. And without warning, her facial expression would darken at something I said — something that offended her, sounded conceited to her ears, or was said in the wrong tone. Those brief, sudden episodes would chill me to the bone, and I learned to segue with humor to restore the facial expressions of the mom who loved me. Sometimes, I could recapture her smile—the infectious silliness that made me feel like everything was going to be okay. She could be quick to laugh at herself, and she usually got a kick out of us laughing along with her. Until she didn’t. 

I don’t know if there is any new research explaining how an Alzheimer’s patient retains their sense of humor despite dramatic personality changes. I’ve read that laughter is connected to multiple regions of the brain, e.g., the frontal lobe, right and left cortex, and the occipital lobe, which are less affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia. Likewise, experts say music memory stays with dementia patients partly because the cerebellum, which is involved in musical memory and processing, is not as affected by Alzheimer’s or dementia until much later in the disease course. I knew this was true for Mom as I watched her sing the old hymns from our Baptist upbringing with the Sunday morning piano player in the memory care unit.

Mom’s silliness offered levity when the days grew dark behind the slowly closing curtain of her life, like when Mom and her assisted-living BFF Jane (who also had Alzheimer’s) dressed alike and then kept forgetting. I would point it out, and they’d break up in laughter. 

During Covid, I would visit them through their closed windows or call them on the phone in hopes it was a good day when they could remember how to answer the phone. The phone often went like this, and this is verbatim:

ME: Hi mom, what are you doing?

MOM: I can’t talk right now. I’m not wearing pants.

ME: Why aren’t you wearing pants?

MOM: Here, talk to your father.

(Dad gets on, presumably without his hearing aids.) 

ME: Dad, why isn’t Mom wearing any pants? 

DAD: What?!

ME (louder and slower): WHY ISN’T MOM WEARING PANTS?!

DAD (muttering to Mom): I can’t hear a damned thing, Elaine. 

(TO ME): Here, talk to Mom.

(Hands the phone back to Mom.)

ME: Mom, why aren’t you wearing pants?

MOM (laughing riotously): What are you talking about? Of course I’m wearing pants! 

At that moment I resolved to call less, as it left us all more confused, and they never remembered anyway. Mercifully, the COVID lockdown ended, and I could resume my in-person visits.

Mom had always been funny. One lifelong source of amusement (and aggravation) for Leigh and me was the double life Mom and Dad lived for decades as devout, teetotaling bible thumpers who hosted prayer group on Wednesdays, then threw epic, drinky boat parties for their neighbor on weekends. They managed to pull it off, mostly because the bar in their great room had wheels on it and could vanish in a wink if they happened to be hosting a bible study vs. wine club. 

One Thanksgiving, when I was married to my first husband, Ed, two of Mom’s bible-group friends dropped by to wish us a happy Thanksgiving. Ed was in the next room watching the then-Washington Redskins lose in what would become known as D.C.’s second-worst season ever. As Ed yelled F-bombs at Heath Shuler—or was it Gus Frerotte?—Mom apologized to our guests, still standing in the foyer and looking confused. “That’s my son-in-law. He has Tourettes,” she smiled, never missing a beat.

My sister and I had no idea that Christmas of 2022 would be her last, but I remember writing Mom a card she could not read, wishing her laughter in 2023—and a sweet memory or two of special moments with her grandchildren. Mom had always provided my sister and me with plenty of comic relief, and we grew up believing humor was the best medicine. 

Mom declined quickly after that and suffered an undignified passing that hurts my heart when I think of it. But even in the dark, confused hours toward the end of her life, she would occasionally light up at the sight of her daughters or her brother walking in. On one of my last visits to her memory care facility, before she was moved to the hospital and then to hospice, I walked into her room wearing a t-shirt that said, “I found this humerus,” with a graphic of a cat holding a human arm bone. Mom, a retired nurse, burst out laughing, and that got me giggling hysterically. I hope the warm relief of that laughter washed over and comforted her in that moment as it did me. 

It is that memory of Mom and me laughing in her final weeks that I hold most precious. Whenever sad thoughts of her final, agonizing hours start to creep in, I rush to replace them with the familiar, shared silliness of that moment. I thank the gods of stupid t-shirts. And I whisper, Thank you, Mom, for sharing the best Mother’s Day gift of all. I’m sending it right back to you. With love. 

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Robin Bond

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