Broken Brain, Sovereign God

According to the yearly Alzheimer’s Association publication dubbed “Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures,” more than six million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. While this mattered to me, say, 20 years ago, it wasn’t until it became personal to me because of my mom’s struggles that I fully appreciated the extent of this problem. The same publication tells us “1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. It kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.”

words + photographs MARK APPLEGATE

In 2009, in what seemed like an afterthought on my mom’s diagnosis of behavioral health concerns likely caused by the rapid loss of both of her parents and other stressors, the document mentioned she also had “a mild form of dementia.”  She had a brief stay in a behavioral health facility, did outstanding, and appeared good-as-new when we picked her up. We knew little about the topic of dementia despite her mom dying with it, along with congestive heart failure. We didn’t notice memory loss or anything matching what we thought old people looked like with the disease (mom was only 65), so we kind of let this afterthought go.  

Within less than 10 years, we discovered how wrong we were in ignoring those five words, as she started developing significant symptoms. Fewer than five years ago, we were no longer able to keep mom safe and were forced to place her in fulltime memory care. It was devastating.

COVER Mark Applegate and his mom
COLLAGE A selection of Mark’s favorite photographs that include his mom, brother, sister and son when he was a little boy.

My mom has always been a piano player, for as long as I can remember.  Piano was, in many ways, her happy place. She could be distraught at something dumb one of us kids did or with the state of the world, and she would sit at the piano and play the old hymns of our Christian faith. The music and the concurrent, unspoken prayer would remind her God was in charge and had a plan for her good and for His Glory, even in the struggle (Romans 8:28-30). It has always been this way for her, and it always will be.

But in 2018/19 she found herself struggling with dementia. She could only speak, for the most part, in jumbled sentences, demonstrating the extent the disease had broken her brain. (This is called “aphasia” and is common with dementia). However, her happy place was still her happy place, and she would frequently sit at the piano at the nursing home with a “hymnal” and start playing. The hymnal was really in her head. What she placed on the piano was often upside down and/or may have been a cooking magazine or a pot holder. 

She would play and sing. She struggled to talk away from the piano, but she struggled much less to sing. At the same time, another amazing event would happen. Most of the 17 ladies with whom she shared the memory unit would also come out of their rooms and sing as best they could. While it may have, to an outsider not understanding the circumstances, sounded out of key and bungled, to the Lord it sounded better than a chorus of angels to hear these ladies sing His praise from within their storms.

One day, my stepfather and I visited my mom, and I was struggling. It was hard seeing her battle to play the piano at her happy place. Seeing her struggle in mobility and communication, accompanied by a big knot from a fall she had the day before, wore out the last thread of strength I had as I came in. Then, an amazing thing happened demonstrating to me again just how much God was sovereign even over illness. 

WATCH Mark’s mom in her happy place, playing piano in this 60-second clip. Notice how she “found it” when Mark’s stepfather reminded her to keep her eyes on him for the words. “That is such a picture of our walk with Christ as he guides us through His extraordinarily complex and amazing plan,” Mark says.

Mom found her song anew. She sang the words, and she even flashed me an OK sign to remind me all would be OK, to not worry for her. To this day, it both emboldens me to serve and help those with dementia and crushes me to think of my weakness while she showed joy in spite of her circumstances. So I am reminded when I struggle, when I am tempted to shake my fist at my Lord, when I am crushed Mom can no longer play the piano because of her more advanced state of dementia, God is good. He granted us a lifetime of watching Mom play so we can keep the memories in our hearts like treasure. And, when I get down again here and there, I pull out the OK video and let her remind me neither her future or mine is on earth. Instead, it is with the author of her salvation, the only sovereign Lord. And things are OK anew. 

This is our story; this is our song: Praising our Savior, all the day long. MA

Mark Applegate is a Christian, husband, dad, and cornbread-cooking, IT geek, writer, and runner on-the-side. He has lived in the Ozarks his whole life, attended Missouri State University, studied briefly in Israel, married his high school sweetheart, and has since lived happily ever after. Mark is currently director of systems alignment for SeniorAge Area Agency on Aging and loves working with and for seniors. Read more from Mark on his personal blog, Digital Cornbread.


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