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I’m going to say goodbye now, Mom: An essay on Alzheimer’s

by HPR Contributor | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | News | November 7th, 2019

Cover by Raul Gomez

By Lonna Whiting

I’m eating lunch at my desk transcribing an interview from a doctor about the benefits of colonoscopies before age 50.

It’s going to be used in a blog piece I’m ghostwriting for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association as part of Colon Cancer Awareness Month.The doctor’s voice comes through my earbuds, watery, nervous and scripted. They all sound the same like they’re reciting passages from Gray’s Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice.

Those with a family history of colon cancer or other digestive diseases could benefit from early detection beginning with basic sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy.

My cell phone lights up next to the keyboard. “Mom,” appears on the caller ID screen.

I’m not going to answer this time. I’m trying to finish lunch on a deadline and we’ve had the same conversation several times already today.

Thanks to technology, colonoscopies are no longer as invasive as they once were.

I let the call go to voicemail. I turn up the audio until the doctor’s voice in my earbuds reaches a volume likely deemed unhealthy by the American Academy of Audiologists.

Most patients consider the preparation prior to the procedure to be the most uncomfortable part.

I’m neither surprised nor annoyed when “Mom” lights up on my cell phone screen again a few moments later.

“Hello?” I say.

“Hi, there!” From the sound of excitement in her voice, I can tell she doesn’t remember our previous calls today.

“What’s up?” I ask, scratching a skidmark of lunch off my skirt with an index finger.

“What are you doing?” she asks. “Where are you?” I want to tell her that she’s asked me this a total of seven times now. Instead, I “meet her where she is,” like the dementia nurse navigator coached me to do when Mom hits the repetition stage.

“I’m at work, Mom. Did you have lunch?”

“Yes,” she says. I can tell from her voice she’s trying hard to go over what she had, though I happen to know from our earlier conversations. Tater tot hotdish, green beans, applesauce.

“Did you sit next to Sharon?” I know the answer to this is yes, too. She always sits next to Sharon.

“I think so,” she replies quietly. I’m losing her to some activity they’re starting in the common area. I hear Daniel O’Donnell singing and know from the intro music it’s “Reminisce with Music” time.

“I’m going to say goodbye now, Mom.”

“OK, I love you.” I’m about to say it back but I can hear the phone drop to the floor and she abandons me to Daniel O’Donnell’s saccharin rendition of “Put your head on my shoulder.”

I go back to my work.

 Writer Lonna Whiting and her mother, Elizabeth Gregory, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2013 - photograph by Lonna Whitnig

Carrying extra weight, having a family history and eating too much red meat can increase your risk of developing colon cancer.

That having a family history part stops me from typing. I go back to the nurse navigator, who told me, “Based on your family history you don’t have any more chance of getting early-onset Alzheimer’s than you do any other disease.” This is supposed to comfort me but only heightens my anxiety whenever I forget someone’s name, lose my direction or get my math wrong.

I’m just about finished with the interview because the voice in my earbuds says the word “hope.”

There is hope because research and treatments are always getting better and more sophisticated.

Colon cancer is easy compared to this, I think. I know it’s selfish, but these days it feels like I’m watching someone take an eraser and rubbing it furiously against my mom’s skull. I wish doctors could scope my mother’s brain and scrape out all the bad parts.

My phone lights up again. I answer not out of guilt or obligation, but because I know she will soon lose the ability to use a phone.

I say hello and wait for her to say “Hi there!” again.

And then we go through lunch and Sharon and Reminiscing with Music all over again. I do this because I have to, because I have to meet her where she is, and if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I don’t want to miss another chance to hear her say, “I love you,” one more time.

[Editor’s note: Lonna Whiting is a freelance writer and owner of, a content experience agency located in Fargo. She has been a caregiver to her mother, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 61].

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