The Impact on Family

“The hardest part of Alzheimer’s was telling my mom she had it.”

It’s 2010 and I’m a 33-year-old man standing below an enormous blue whale at New York’s Natural History Museum, staring at its fiberglass fins while my mom is yelling at me. She’s upset because I told her doctor I thought she had Alzheimer’s. I’m sad because you didn’t need a doctor to know she did.

This is obviously not my favorite memory, but I am a little proud of it. Because that was the first day, after a lifetime of being the baby of the family—always getting more attention and freedom and Christmas presents—that I felt like I had stepped up. My dad and sister knew about mom’s Alzheimer’s long before I ever did, but I was the one who told the doctor. And now, I was taking one for the team.

A man wearing a white shirt and sunglasses sitting next to a woman smiling widely with short hair and a plaid shirt and dark-colored skirt. They sit on the forest floor, the woman lightly holding the mans arm.
Kathleen and Anthony Dougherty in the late 1960s shortly after they were married.

Being the baby has advantages, but in general you are always a step behind. You are the last one to leave the kids’ table and the last to get jokes at the adult one. So it makes sense that I was the last one to acknowledge when mom started losing her memory. But when the signs were undeniable and finally I got the courage to Google the word Alzheimer’s, it felt like I was giving her the disease, not researching it. I read Alzheimer’s has no cure. I read the drugs that slow it are not very good.

There was a brief moment of hope when I read that memory loss is also a symptom of depression. Maybe she just hates being retired! I thought. I called my sister and she agreed: Wouldn’t it be great if mom was just depressed?

But before we could figure any of this out my mom had to see a doctor—and she was having none of that. My dad asked her to get some memory tests and she refused. He even offered to do them with her. No dice.

I performed one final test before a trip back home to San Francisco. Instead of telling my dad, I planned the entire trip for weeks with my mom. She was writing it in her calendar, she said. She would get my dad to pick me up, she promised. And then just before I left New York, when I finally called my dad and told him I would be coming, he was alarmed and pleasantly surprised. I got that dreadful feeling where your skin gets heavy, and that night in bed, I cried real quiet-like so that my girlfriend, who is now my wife, wouldn’t hear me.

A few days later, finally in San Francisco, I asked my mom to meet me for coffee downtown. We talked normally for a bit, but I saw my chance when she said, “Sometimes I forget things.”

I asked her if she was worried about it. She said not really. It’s aging and everybody forgets things. She said I hope you don’t think your dad doesn’t forget things. She said sometimes my dad would get on her for forgetting something but then she would remember some distant story or fact and he’d ask, how did you remember that?

I asked if she would be open to going to a doctor about it, just to be safe. She said she had a doctor and that doctor never had any concern about her memory. She said I hope you don’t think your dad doesn’t forget things. I asked her if she would get tested if that doctor asked her to? She said of course. I asked for her doctor’s name. She told me. Then she told me that the funniest thing is sometimes my dad would get on her for forgetting something but then she would remember some distant story or fact and he would ask, how did you remember that?

I contacted her doctor, asked her to recommend some tests, and then asked her, please, please, please don’t tell my mom I was the one who called you.

About a week later, my mom was alarmed to find the brass mailbox at their house stuffed with a big packet full of questionnaires and glossy brochures filled with the A-word. She called the doctor to ask what this was all about, and the doctor said your son called me because he is worried about your memory. So much for the doctor protecting the rat.

The inevitable blow-up would be too personal for the phone, so it was destined to happen on my parents’ next visit to New York, and the Museum of Natural History ended up being the venue. Straight from the stranger than fiction department, when we walked into the museum we were met by big signs announcing a special exhibit on the brain. It cost extra and I walked by it like LaLaLaLa nothing to see here, but my dad bought tickets and we walked through it in silence as if there was a foul smell everyone was too polite to mention.

Later we drifted to the Hall of Ocean Life with its suspended whale, when dad left for a bathroom break and mom and I commenced a scene.

Why did you do that? she said. She was clenched but quiet the way people do when they are trying to convey being pissed off in public. I said because I thought something was wrong. She said, but this was about me. You should tell, me! she said louder.

I told her I did it because I was worried about her and I love her.

This memory really sucks, but sometimes it can be really nice. Nice because now that my mom can barely talk and has a hard time distinguishing a coffee cup from a box of Kleenex, it’s weirdly comforting to remember her yelling at me. That was the last time she asserted herself as my mother, and that’s an important moment. And the horribleness of the memory is what makes it so easy to remember.

She also agreed to go to the doctor. Not happily, but she did. She said something like, I’ll go, but just know that you’re the only one who thinks I have any problems. And I said thank you, and pretended like it was a one-man job instead of a vast conspiracy. Still the family baby, but a little less than before.


—Conor Dougherty ’99 is a writer for The New York Times. His essay was originally published on Medium in 2015. His mother, Kathleen, passed away from Alzheimer’s disease in 2018.