June 21 is my mom’s 80th birthday, but she doesn't know that. She doesn’t know what day it is anymore. She doesn't even know what a birthday is. My mom has late-stage Alzheimer's.
Today, on her birthday, I am climbing a mountain in her honor by participating in the Alzheimer's Association's annual event The Longest Day. Along with 10 friends, I’m climbing Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental U.S., to raise money so that the Association can continue to provide support for people living with this disease. The climb will take 16-17 hours to complete and is certainly the longest hike I have ever undertaken. Every step is for Mom.
We started this hike in the darkness at 3 a.m. and we are still on our way to the top. As I take each step up this incredible 14,500-foot mountain, I am remembering all of the steps it took to get to this moment: all the training hikes and gym workouts, all the fundraising, and all of the long, seemingly impossible days of my mother's disease. All along the way, The Alzheimer's Association was an invaluable resource for advice, referrals and strategies for handling my mom's illness and decline. My mom's Alzheimer’s diagnosis was devastating news for the whole family, but especially devastating for her. She always loved learning, reading and discussing current events. The first in her family to go to a four-year college, she worked for Planned Parenthood and as a lobbyist for the Oregon Legislature. The last job she held was as an editor for a bilingual newspaper. At the same time, she was studying to become an ESL teacher.
Then she started forgetting things; appointments, bills, daily tasks. She lost her purse over and over again. She couldn’t read books anymore, since by the time she would get to the end, she had already forgotten the beginning.
She ended up losing her job due to her frequent mistakes. She lost friends because she would forget to call. She forgot to pay her taxes and her rent. She was ashamed of her symptoms, and became really good at hiding them by writing everything down in a notebook and carrying it with her everywhere. But then she started losing the notebook, too.
Mom forgot the day, the month and the year. She even started imagining she was living in the past. Eventually she forgot her own name and her family, including me.
Every step of the way, The Alzheimer’s Association was there with the advice and resources I needed. Now I am seeking to give back so that others facing this awful disease can be supported. I'm climbing because it's my mom's birthday, and because I can't celebrate with her anymore. Participating in The Longest Day seems a fitting tribute to her 80 years of life. My team and I have raised over $15,000 and know that it will help a lot of people dealing with this disease.
It feels empowering to be able to give back and to honor my mom in this way on her birthday, The Longest Day.
About the Author: John Binninger and his friends that make up The Whitney Summiters are participating in Alzheimer’s Association The Longest Day®. Click here to visit John's team page.