Fountain: As Alzheimer’s robs Mama’s memory, I try to laugh

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Columnist John Fountain with his mother, Gwendolyn Marie Hagler Clincy.

The telephone rang around midnight as usual. It was Mama. Even between the buzz and fog of my television and sleepiness, I could sense the fear in Mama’s hushed, almost whispered words.

“John, I need you to come get me,” she said.

“What’s going on, Ma?” I asked.

“I’ve been kidnapped.”

“Kidnapped? By who, Ma?”

“By this strange man,” she answered. “His name is Eddie.”

I laughed under my breath. I didn’t mean to. But I couldn’t help laughing on the inside —  in this latest round of what I came to call “Alzhumor’s” after Mama was diagnosed with her “monster” years earlier.


I had to break the news to her. To tell her that she, in fact, had not been kidnapped. That this Eddie man was her husband — of more than 40 years. She had just forgotten. That it was her disease.

Step by step, I recounted how I was there in Grandmother’s house as a boy when they got married.

“See, Ma, God knew I needed to be there so that I could remind you one day,” I cajoled.

“But John, I couldn’t be married to him,” Mama retorted.

“He’s your husband, Mama,” I said, laughing aloud by then.

I told her about the evening as little boy when I first met Eddie Clincy. How she was perfumed up in Estee Lauder for their date and she introduced him to my little sister and me, and he gave us a stick of chewing gum…

Slowly, she remembered. She melted into laughter, sometimes into tears. This was our ritual. Laughter mixed with tears is how we got through Mrs. Clincy’s monster: Alzheimer’s.

Laughter — in between moments of Mama’s forgetfulness and the times when years suddenly would return in HD. Laughter — between the humorous moments of her biting, childlike honesty and the agony of watching her being consumed by a cruel disease that gnaws at human dignity.

I learned that laughter — good and strong, like black coffee — is the only way to endure Alzheimer’s because surely you cannot defeat it. I came to understand that you can choose to laugh or choose to cry, and that eventually you will have no choice with Alzheimer’s.

I chose to laugh.

Like the time when I was playing old school music (as I usually did to stimulate Mama’s memories). Mama danced around my kitchen, finger snapping and sashaying, and joining in the song’s call and response. The only problem is it was Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’.”

“How long has it been since you made love? Did you make love yesterday? Did you make love last week?” Carter crooned as Mama nodded or shook and shimmied.

Not something any son ever wants to imagine. Trust me.

Or the time when Mama seemed particularly lethargic after a doctor’s appointment and the transportation van was late picking her up. I had a splitting migraine. So finally, the guy shows up, then has the nerve to rush and be gruff with my mom. I give him a few assurances and words, some of which cannot be printed in a family newspaper, then look up to see Mama smiling and saying proudly to another woman on the van: “That’s my son…”

I laughed.

Through Alzheimer’s, I also sang to Mama at night as she lay in the nursing home. I prayed with her. We played Bingo. And Bid Whist. We ate ice cream, held hands. We cried. And we loved like mother and son.

But what I choose to remember most this weekend, which marks two years since cancer and Alzheimer’s took Mama away, is that we laughed.


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