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Monday, May 7, 2012

In honor of my mother: A Mother's Day reflection on Alzheimer's

                                                          My mother and me 1965

This Mother’s Day has more meaning for my family than it has in past years. Our beloved mother, Gisela Ullmann Rodriguez, is still with us in body- but the wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother that we have known and loved for 50 years, is not wholly with us this year.

My mother is slipping away from us. There isn’t anything that can be done about it. She has what appears to be a form of Alzheimer’s disease.

It all started around January of 2010. It started with very little things, and it didn’t really become alarming until we noticed she was forgetting birthdays and other details she would NEVER in a million years, have forgotten.

When I was growing up, my mother was one of those “SUPER MOMS” who worked outside the home in addition to being an incredible homemaker. Even after working in an office all day, she had an amazing dinner on the table every single night. We were very proud of the fact that she was a valued professional in the workplace, and she was an incredible role model for my sister and me.

As I got older and became a mother to my own children, I could never understand where she got her drive or energy from all those years. She and my father raised my sister and me to have a very strong work ethic; but I could never believe or understand how she managed to accomplish all the things she did. She was renowned for her drive and ability. She lived up to her German roots and never forgot where she came from.
In addition to being a driven wife and professional, she has always been a devoted and patient mother and grandmother. And while she could be very stern and serious, she has always had a great capacity for love, compassion, and generosity.

She retired in December, 1999, from a very stressful and demanding job as an Office Manager/Property Manager of a local condominium. Sometimes she worked close to 60 hour weeks. It wasn’t unusual for her to be on 24 hour a day call and have to go to work on weekends. Always the consummate professional in every regard, she was a relentless advocate for residents, as well as staff.

In previous posts, I have written about my family. It can’t ever be stated strongly enough that my mother was the glue that held our family together. In her prime, there was no problem too difficult, no issue outside of her ability to cope. In dealing with her daughters and grandchildren, she was often tough, but always fair and compassionate. You didn’t want to aggravate her or make her upset, but even if that happened, she was quick to forgive us and move forward (not so much with my father).
                                                           Gisela Ullmann age 11

My mother, Gisela Ullmann Rodriguez, has been the epitome of the modern woman. Born in Köln, Germany, a couple of years before the onset of World War II; her life began amid chaos, danger, and deprivation.
She came into a tough world at a very tough time. She was a child of war, and that experience has been a defining one throughout her entire life. As a small child, she lived in a world of uncertainty and dread. Her house burnt in a bombing raid and the family had to relocate with relatives far from the city life she was used to in Köln. Her one salvation was the strong extended family bonds and the resilience of her mother’s family, which held them all together throughout the years of deprivation and danger.

When my grandfather returned from his years in a British Prisoner of War Camp, she didn’t recognize him. She was ten years old. War was the thing she knew best, and that had a powerful impact on her.

My mother loves my husband, David, because he is, to her, the embodiment of the things she knows and admires most. She respects and admires his ability to DO things and makes things happen. She has a soft spot in her heart for him because he reminds her of her father- a man with many strength, and weaknesses, a man who knew about war and hardship, a man of action and determination, and a man with rough edges and charisma.

                       My family of origin- father, Pablo, sister, Lisa, me, and mother, Gisela, in 2011

Nothing pleases my mother more than seeing someone do an honest day’s work. It isn’t that she didn’t like to have fun; she just wasn’t very good at it. Relaxation and rest has not been her strong suite. In her world, she reserves the highest respect and admiration for those who provide service to others. She sees something familiar to her in David’s soul that none of us in the family have- a first-hand, personal experience, and understanding of war- and all of its sounds, and smells, and sights. They both have lived in war, and that is a bond that is beyond our comprehension.
I could write a book about my mother’s life. She has led a fascinating one. Nothing glamorous or very exciting, but extraordinary in her ability to confront extreme difficulties and pull together under extremely stressful circumstances.

That is why it is almost unbearable to accept and fathom what is happening to her. It is so unexpected and out of character. How could this happen to someone who was so detail-oriented and never, ever, forgot ANYTHING?! She remembered EVERY friend’s birthday and anniversary. Her memory was almost annoying, as she rarely forgot even the most mundane details. Her mind was truly like a steel-trap.

And now, more and more, she can’t recall what happened 20 minutes ago. Sometimes the things that happen in life are crueler than you could have imagined possible. Because the worst part of it is that the things she remembers most vividly are those things that happened during her difficult childhood- war, separation, loss, and family. I fear for a day when that is all she remembers.
So we are grateful to still have our beloved mother with us. We still enjoy her company, and she enjoys us. We have to adjust, and that is a character-building experience. Is it ever? We aren’t alone. There are millions of families who have, or are, or will be, going through what we are now going through. We take it a day at a time. Our love and our time is more precious than ever. Each day she remembers is a cherished gift. We don’t squander it as we did. We don’t take it for granted.

                                  Pablo and Gisela Rodriguez - beloved parents and grandparents


  1. What a beautiful post. Thank you SO much for sharing this, Diana. And... au contraire, I think your mum's lived a *most* glamorous & exciting life ... not to mention a deeply inspiring one, with a deeply wonderful daughter. Brava, to both of you! xo

  2. Dear Diana. I was so inspired by your Mothers influence in my life not mention your whole family. I always rembeted her on her birthday and thought of her on Mothers day but rarely reached out to her to let her know during the past 20 years. I have such incredibly found memories of growing up in your house. Over the years when I spoke of my childhood I would speak of your mother as my scone Mom. Sometimes now as I am finally raising a family of my own I'm inspired by how your Mom was with you guys and with me. This kinda orphaned kid who would spend countless weekends at your house. Your Mom showed my unconditional love when I couldnt seem to receive it from my own family. Im still reminded of her when I find myself clipping the grapes in a bowl so the always look just picture perfect. I even make one of her dinners. The pasta with black olives spring onions and Parmesan cheese :). I still want her recipe for the beef soup she would make and crumble those tostitos on. Anyway I digress, simply your Mom was like a Mom to me too and my heart breaks knowing that she is sick now. For the past two years I have watched my own Mother slip away from me. There are days when she looks at me and asks me who those. Children are( her grand children). And even yet I still live in this fantasy that she will be the exception and not get any worse. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers always. I just wish I had told your Mom how much she impacted my life for the best.
    All My love,

  3. Alzheimer’s disease is tough on everyone ... especially the family members. It's the loss of a life, of being something to someone. My one son-in-law has a father with advanced Alzheimer's. His mother is elderly and can no longer care for him ... but won't allow him to be placed in a home. Very distressing. My other son-in-law's mother does not have Alzheimer's but may as well ... she suffered TBI from an accident and has little-to-no long term memory and very little short term. My granddaughters are heart broken that "Nona" doesn't remember them.
    You are in for a long journey and I wish you well and offer what prayers I can for strength for you.

    My own short elogy for my mother can be read here:

  4. I am so proud to come from a line of strong, compassionate, generous, loving and effortlessly beautiful women both inside and out. Gigi is my heart and soul as I can identify with her on a person level with similar traits and characteristics of her younger years. I am proud to have acquired the nick name "Little Gigi" and carry her maiden name as my middle name. I think her life was as glamourous and exciting as well as terrifying as they come. Shes my inspiration, pride and joy. Even as her memory fades mine will still stands strong for her with all that she has done and accomplished. Thank you for writing this blog Mami. I hope it can inspire and help other families going through similar situations.

  5. This is a truly beautiful post Diana. My mother died more than 10 years ago now, far too young. I also visited with the mother of dear friends as they nursed their mother who had Alzheimer's and enjoyed my conversations with her when she had the energy. She recalled her early life and those experiences much more than recent happenings and I was happy to hold her hand and listen as she told me of being a young Southern belle who was swept off her feet by a handsome young airman. In her more lucid moments, she knew the things she couldn't remember and was upset by it, but I like to think having someone not as close as her immediate family helped a little.
    Most times she remembered and recognized me and I know she often asked after me after our initial meeting (as I was an infrequent visitor to Virginia), at other times she confused me with a friend she knew as a girl. I was happy she always knew I was her friend and I sat with her whenever I could.
    For her children, it was probably harder as she mistook her elder son for his father, who passed similarly a few years earlier. But I treasured the times we had together, and was honored to meet and know her.