Do You Know Who I Am?

By Keith Burden

Some things are worse than dying. That was the conclusion I reached after watching my mother suffer from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. For years I erroneously believed this condition affected only the mind. Our experience proved otherwise.

To be perfectly honest, we didn’t recognize some of the more subtle signs in the early stages. We attributed things like forgetfulness, episodes of confusion and mood swings to aging or poor circulation. In spite of these minor irregularities, she continued to function at an amazing level of normality.

Eventually the telltale signs became too obvious to overlook or ignore. Mom was unable to perform the simplest household tasks. Paranoia, depression, personality changes and the tendency to become quiet and withdrawn signaled that something was seriously wrong.

Her doctor believed she had Alzheimer’s. That diagnosis led my wife to a book written by prominent physicians on the subject. The more she read, the more convinced we became that Mom had all the classic symptoms of this disease. She was a textbook case.

From Bad to Worse

It wasn’t until my father became ill and had to be hospitalized, however, that we recognized the full extent of her condition. During the month Mother stayed in our home, we observed behavior that was nothing short of incredible. It was almost as though a stranger was living in her body.

Her condition deteriorated to the point we were forced to place her in a nursing home and then later a lock-down Alzheimer’s facility. The downward spiral continued. Mom fell three times, resulting in broken hips and surgeries. A failing appetite, subsequent weight loss and a progressively failing memory characterized the months that followed. She would eventually stop walking or talking.

During one of my regular visits, I walked into her room unannounced. Moving carefully to her bedside, I took her hand and leaned near her face. She looked at me as though I was a total stranger.

Softly I said, “Do you know who I am?” After a moment’s hesitation she smiled and replied, “Yes! Do you?” In spite of her diminished mental capacity, she hadn’t lost her ability to make me laugh. Although she never called my name or acknowledged who I was, she was able to make me think . . . deeply.

Knew Me

Since that experience with Mom, I’ve thought a lot about that question. Did she really know who I was? If you’re referring to that moment, that day in her room, the answer is no. The disease had eroded her memory to the point that she didn’t recognize her own son. If, however, you’re asking if she knew who I was during the years that preceded her illness, the answer is a resounding yes!

Knew I Was Her Responsibility

She didn’t pawn me off on someone else. She cared for me and nurtured me. She fed me and clothed me. She loved me unconditionally and, yes, she disciplined me. She attended every ballgame and made sure I did my homework.

Knew I Was a Sinner

On more than one occasion she spoke to me about my spiritual need. During a revival meeting in 1965, she slipped her arm around my shoulder and whispered, “Don’t you want to give your heart to Jesus, Son?”

That gentle nudge was all I needed. When I finished praying the sinner’s prayer at the altar that evening, I looked up and she was kneeling by my side.

Knew I Was a Preacher

She was at the youth camp in 1970 when I answered the call to preach. She heard my first sermon—all 12 minutes of it. She gave me my first chain-reference study Bible—I still have it. She encouraged me all the way through college. She attended my ordination service. Every time we were in a church service together after that, she told all her friends, “That’s my son. He’s a preacher you know!”

Knew I Was Grateful

When I was growing up there was not much public display of affection in our family. After I left home and got married that all changed. I seldom said goodbye to my mother, especially in the latter years, without first giving her a kiss, a hug and saying, “I love you.” I made a conscious, deliberate effort to let her know that I was thankful for her love, prayers and support.

When it Was Important

She knew me when it counted, and she helped me know myself. Through her influence I learned that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Because of her witness I saw the need to be “crucified with Christ.” As a result of her prayers I can say that I have been “made the righteousness of God in him.”

Yes . . . my mom knew who I was, and thanks to her, I know who I am today.