Saturday, October 08, 2005


Weathered Man, originally uploaded by rehuxley.

It's the first time I've seen my uncle since he was diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer's a couple of years ago. Before he arrives for lunch with several other family members, my mother warns that I will find him much changed. She warns that he may not know me.

But my uncle greets me as smoothly as ever. "So good to see you," he says, taking my hand. Once the CEO and Chairman of the board of a large company, he is well dressed and carries a small notebook and pen in his shirt pocket just like he always did. Though I suspect its pages are blank now, I'm heartened to see it there.

I wonder if the warm, courteous greeting implies recognition or if it is just a habit retained from years of business and travel.

Then he cocks his chin in the direction of the son who brought him. "How do you like my new chauffeur?"

We wait until he laughs before we react. A joke, he has told a joke just like he always did. We all laugh heartily.

We sit on the sun porch and have a glass of Chardonnay.

"I've forgotten two thirds of everything I ever knew," my uncle says matter of factly.

"Do you find you remember more from your childhood?" I ask, then wonder if I've made a gaffe. Is it okay to talk about this?

But my uncle takes a sip of his Chardonnay and reflects. "I haven't really analyzed that," he says with the same matter of factness.

Then his brother, a sweet frail man, famous for his endless and uncensored curiosity dives in. "Do you remember the street address of the house where we lived in grammar school?" he asks like a game show host.

We all gasp inwardly, but my uncle attempts an answer. "It was 101 something, wasn't it?"

"No, we didn't move to that address till high school," the brother who likes to ask questions corrects him.

My uncle concentrates on his wine while the conversation flows around him. Once known as a witty and penetrating conversationalist, he is mostly silent.

The talk turns to politics, and I ask him if he is still a Republican.

"That depends who I'm with," he says, and again we laugh.

At the lunch table, his brother and sister reminisce about their childhood. "Do you remember our trips to the ocean every August?" the brother who likes to ask questions says. Another spot quiz.

"Yes, I remember," my uncle says, but sounds unconvincing.

"What happened on the way every year?" his brother prods.

My uncle looks around the table for help.

"We got a flat tire. Six kids jammed in the car and every single year we got a flat tire," my mother provides.

"And Pa would get out of the car and swear," my uncle recalls. "Son of a bitch!" he says, triumphantly repeating that long ago curse against flat tires, horrendous illnesses, and bum luck of all kinds.

It is a good lunch, punctuated by much laughter, and by a sense of relief that my uncle is in some essential way, still unchanged, and that today, at least, he is able to enjoy his Chardonnay, his family, the sun slanting across the table.

But on the way out, the brother who likes to ask questions is unable to hide his sadness. "You don't talk much--not like you used to," he says.

And my uncle taps the notebook in his shirt pocket. "No," he says. "But I've been observing and I'm going to write it all down later."

Then he winks at me. "And when I do, you're going to be in trouble."


Vickie said...

This is a wonderful story Patry. You do need an edit on "very single year." I actually wondered about the notebook when you first mentioned it. I rather expected him to make notes all along or at least refer to it on occasion. Thanks for sharing.

Patry Francis said...

Thanks for your sharp eye, Vickie--and of course, for your kind words.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

Wow...this hit me especially because my grandfather on my mother's side died of AZ, and my grandmother (Oma) on my father's side, who is 90 years old, has been suffering with dementia for the past two years, losing more and more odd nodes of her memory, and it continues to fascinate and devastate me, how memory works or doesn't.


robin andrea said...

I'm glad you were able to spend time with him while he still retains his essential self. He sounds like a lovely man with a good sense of humor still intact. Lovely story.

e_journeys said...

Wonderfully told, and very poignant. It gave me a feeling of teetering.

Patry Francis said...

Thanks for the sensitive readings and the comments. This disease seems to touch so many of us in various ways.

And yes, Jordan, the destruction of memory both devastates and fascinates. Who are we without it?

Susan said...

I think you've told it so well, both the personal story and the general one about this disease and how we react to it.
Thanks for sharing that. And I'm sorry your family must face this.

Patry Francis said...

Susan: thanks for your visit and your comment.

Anonymous said...

Tenderly treated. My family has been ravaged by dementia. A hard road in the end.

Patry Francis said...

easy: my family, too--and you are so right about it being a rough road. I guess that's why the small victories-- a pleasant lunch, laughter, an occasional triumph over ravaged memories are to be savored.

sonia a. mascaro said...

Lovely story!

leslee said...

Just had a good phone conversation with my mom last night. She has Alzheimer's. Sometimes she's very clear and sharp and other times gets confused. Her personality's still the same.

Speaking of how odd memory is, last fall she had a crisis (they switched her depression meds - don't get me started) and she was extremely confused. We had to hospitalize her. I was on the phone with her med team and they needed her Medicare number - she rattled it right off no problem. I was stunned.

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