My mom died peacefully in her sleep early this morning at the age of 72 from early-onset Alzheimer’s dementia. My wife, children and I are her only surviving relatives. If you know me well, you probably know that my relationship with my mom was very challenging. I wanted to share a bit about her life for anyone who wishes to continue reading. Knowing that her death was imminent, I’ve spent the last few days writing this tribute to my mom.
Allyn Sue Rauch was born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 7, 1949. Her only sibling, my dear Aunt Mindy, was born two years later. Allyn and Mindy were both second generation Jewish Americans, daughters of Jack and Lillian Rauch. In 1954, when the girls were 5 and 3, the family moved to California in search of better opportunities (and perhaps better weather).
Allyn attended college at UC Davis where she met my father, Larry, while he was working on his PhD. Later, she earned a Masters from Santa Clara University. After a brief stint as a school teacher, Allyn went on to become a marriage, family and child therapist. I was born in 1981, and my parents were divorced two years later. I was the only child of that marriage, but I am forever grateful that my father met and married my step-mother, Elisa; together they had my brother, Lee, and my sister, Rachel, and they are still happily married today.
My mother suffered from severe mental illness her entire adult life. Although never formally diagnosed, she was suspected to have suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder, a very serious condition that is unusually difficult to treat in part because the patient often can’t admit her own illness. I suffered tremendous abuse due to my mother’s illness (those whom have heard about it often say they’ve rarely heard of anything worse). I didn’t really understand that something was wrong until I was 12 years old, and I still needed another 4 years to muster the courage to leave her home and move in full-time with my dad and family at the age of 16.
Years later, I became so angry and intolerant of my mom’s behavior that I didn’t speak to her for about 13 years, from the time I was about 22 until around the time she was diagnosed with dementia.
It took many years of spiritual development and therapy for me to realize that my mom was never trying to hurt me. She was just a very sick woman. She loved me very much, and sometimes she showed it well. I remember coming home from school to find little chocolates on my desk or a sweet note telling me how much she loved me. She always told me I was very smart and could do anything I wanted. When the public high school I was scheduled to attend was subpar, she enrolled me in an exceptional private school to ensure I had the best opportunities to succeed.
The trouble was, I could never predict when she would be kind and loving, and when she would tell me that she no longer loved me, and that I wasn’t her son anymore. Both extremes were frequent occurrences from the time I was 4 years old, if not earlier.
When my mom was diagnosed with dementia in late 2016, I went to see her at Kaiser. She was mobile and coherent, but they held her at the hospital until we could find her an assisted living facility because she was no longer able to care for herself. Sadly, nobody knew that my mom was approaching this condition because she lived an extremely isolated life. She had pushed away all friends and relatives, including her only sister, who died tragically of multiple myeloma at the age of 60 in 2011.
By early 2017, my mom was conserved by an outstanding organization called The Good Shepard Fund. They have been incredible partners in caring for my mom since she was diagnosed. I do not know how I would have walked through my mom’s illness and death without their support.
My mom was placed at Silver Point Plaza in Menlo Park. This was conveniently just down the street from my job at Facebook, and I began to visit her often. I really wanted to make things right, at least as best as I could. I apologized for my years of intolerance. I brought her cookies and other treats. I drove her to doctors appointments. I played her favorite music for her on my iPhone. I introduced her to my daughter Gia, whom my mom thought was amazing (whenever I came without Gia, my mom would ask longingly, “where is the girl?”)
My mom‘s Alzheimer’s decline was unusually rapid. Over only a few years, I watched her go from conversational and mobile to a bed-ridden vegetable unable to recognize me. In the early part of the pandemic, visitors were not allowed to visit her facility. When visitors were allowed to return, I came less frequently than before because I felt I was visiting someone who wasn’t really there. But I still continued to tell her that I loved her, that I was sorry for my behavior, and that I knew she always did her best, however deeply flawed she was.
I never really understood why she had to keep going for this long. For the last two years, her life consisted entirely of lying in bed 24/7, getting diaper changes, and being spoon-fed purées. She would either be sound asleep, or clearly afraid and agitated. I really wanted to stop the purées, but the medical team said we could not. In fact, my mom was admitted to Hospice on four separate occasions over the last few years.
As my mom approached death, I found myself feeling nothing but love and gratitude for her. She did her very best despite being so mentally ill for her entire life. It’s unfortunate that she hurt me and other members of my family, but I do not believe that was her intention. It’s just who she was.
I am so grateful to my mom for my life, and for my children Gia, Joe and Griffin’s lives. And I want to remember dancing in the living room, eating dinner and watching movies together far more than I want to remember the pain I have carried with me my entire life.
Rest well, Mom. You were rarely very peaceful, but I hope you have some peace now. And, as you always said to me, even when we’re apart, you’re always in my heart.