Apr 17, 2013

The Day My Mother Lost Her Whistle

Somehow when my mother’s whistle vanished with no fair warning, I felt a pain that had not as yet seeped into my own brain.

By Harry J. Sobel, Ph.D

Alzheimer's Disease
My mother lost her whistle on August 10, 2008. She moved her lips but no sound emerged.

I knew that Alzheimer’s Disease would slowly hide her soul, even destroy her conscious sense of self. We all knew that.

I have watched her disappear over the past few years, always recognizing the insidious grip that this implacable enemy holds over our family, our shared memories.

 But somehow when my mother’s whistle vanished with no fair warning, I felt a pain that had not as yet seeped into my own brain.

My mother’s whistle just disappeared. Gone.

Subscribe to the Alzheimer's Reading Room

You see “the whistle” was not just any whistle. It was our whistle.

It was the whistle my father invented in the 1950’s in anticipation of one of us becoming lost in the crowds on the Jersey shore, next to the Belmar Beach boardwalk. We would wander for just one more shell, looking for one more bottle cap, hoping for a few more minutes on the half-white summer sand. The whistle brought us home.

The whistle made it clear where one of us stood. No excuse could cloud our whereabouts. It was a life-affirming whistle that defined security.

We knew that a parent was close at hand, but just far enough away to permit endless exploration. It was semi-freedom. The whistle? Well, it was a little family secret that was imprinted on each of us for the next half century.

No cell phones, no email or texting, no iPhones. Just simple C Major whistles letting us know that all was okay.

It was 1956. Eisenhower. Ed Sullivan. Jackie Gleason. Cold War. Superman and Lois. Now it is 2013. Obama. Syria. Identity theft and climate catastrophes. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. The whistle is gone from my mother’s lips; leaving sadness illuminated just a bit more.

I’ll probably teach my children and my children’s children all about the whistle, but perhaps I won’t. We may need a new whistle, perhaps in D Major with a slight pianissimo trill. We certainly could use a smiling whistle to help us believe in safety amidst the onslaught of inexorable negative events these days. I knew 1956. And as former Senator Lloyd Bentsen might have said: “1956 was a friend of mine.”

My mother has lost her whistle yet I hear its tone somewhere silently in the quiet heart that connects us. No disease will destroy that very safe space near the Jersey boardwalk, on a Sunday in August, 1956. It’s a place I can go to with ease.

Harry Sobel

Dr. Harry J. Sobel is a Senior Vice President & Psychologist with E4 Healthcare, Inc., a nationwide provider of employee assistance behavioral health programs and elder care resources.  He lives in Ashland, Ma.

Related Content

Search more than 4,000 original articles in the Alzheimer's Reading Room Knowledge Base