Alzheimer's Foil

My friend of fifty years rolled her once piercing blue eyes toward our 6 year old grand niece as she (my grand niece) began to eat her lunch of pasta noodles covered in cream sauce.

Occasionally, the noodles would even make it to her mouth.  More often than not, however, they slipped from her fork on to her lap or her shirt.  The plate was the size of a platter and it came with minestrone soup.  It was clear that I’d made a mistake and ordered her lunch from the regular menu.

My friend (the estranged sister of this child’s grandmother) does not see her grand nieces or nephews very often but way back in time she had cared often and lovingly for this young girl’s father when he was a young boy and her relationship with her older sister was still intact and more than the current once or twice a year birthday lunches.

She was now seated beside her grand niece in the booth and kept looking at the child’s lap and mounting noodle count, and then at me as if the little girl was on fire and I should do something, anything.   Put out the flames.

My childhood (we met when we were 13 or 14 years old) friend was diagnosed with dementia a couple of years ago when she was only 63.  She lives with her elderly husband and her only son lives in California.  On some days, if you met her, you would only know that she is quiet and rarely initiates any conversation.  She still drives, although not comfortably.  She can physically drive and knows her way around her area but other drivers and traffic seem to agitate her.  She is tense–honking the horn, mumbling about someone who is going too slow when they are going the speed limit, or upset with someone who is passing her simply to take a right hand turn.

She used to be the one to drive us wherever we were going but now when we go to a museum or a movie, I’m the driver and she turns slightly in her seat toward the door and grips the handle for the entire ride.  She is not comfortable in the passenger seat either.

I said to her about our noodle athlete, “Oh, let’s not worry about the noodles.  She’s enjoying it and we’re enjoying watching her.”

She leaned over to my grand niece and offered to cut up one of the chicken cutlets which was currently being guided by her knife like a motor boat crossing a lake, from one lip of the plate to the other, through a wave of noodles.

She cut up a few pieces and, then, took her to the bathroom after our grand niece announced, “Looking at that soup makes me want to go to the ladies room!”

As they walked to the restrooms, hand in hand, I was grateful for our six year old luncheon companion.  Lunch conversation has become more and more difficult in the past year and usually I end up talking, trying to avoid asking the usual “catch up” questions as her memory fades or she has difficulty finding the words she wants and inevitably ends up frustrated, and, finally, just resigned to quiet.

They returned with my grand niece skipping ahead and jumping into the booth for another round of noodle Olympics.   She finished with a silver medal, leaving the bulk of her plate unclaimed but imprinted on her outfit for the afternoon’s tree climbing that was my promise following lunch.

When we said goodbye in the foyer of the restaurant, our silver medalist, spots and all, ran up and wrapped her arms around her neck and held on tight.  I blinked several times, seeing my friend as a young woman picking up this child’s father as a toddler, tossing him in the air, head back laughing amidst his yelps of delight, and catching him in those reliable, strong arms.

Her face, as her head bent under the pull of these small hands around her neck, beamed with a light I’d not seen in many, many years.   Joy.

My eyes filled up.

The fire was momentarily out.

We had ordered from the right menu after all.

Thank you, little miss noodle Olympian tree climber. I love your spots.

Slurp.

©Pat Coakley 2009

PHOTOGRAPHS CANNOT BE USED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION

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20 comments on “Alzheimer's Foil”

  1. She is sooo cute. I feel like she is just going to jump into the air and and fly!

  2. This is touching writing, my friend. You capture the moment so sweetly, and share from the heart. Today, this was a much-needed read . . .

    • After what you’ve been dealing with, I consider this amazing that you even read the story. Seriously, how much can one person deal with at the same time? Am glad you are back spending time with your people in blog land.

  3. (tears welling up) goodness, that is beautiful Pat, thank you

  4. I’m with Tipota. What a sweet, sad story. Luckily, there is a picture to capture the remnants of noodles & make me laugh again :)

  5. Cuz….you write beautifully. you certainly did capture the moment….felt like I was there! have to admit…i got a little teary myself!!!

  6. Lovely shot and beautiful story.

    • Thank you, Razz. You’ll love how she set up the tree climbing play. She said, “Now, Pappy, here’s what we are going to do. We are in Australia. I’m a Koala Bear living in this tree and you are the guide bringing some visitors to see me.”
      Later on, she was a kangaroo. I wanted to tell her your story about getting too close to a kangaroo who nearly boxed you senseless but I decided to wait till she’s older!

  7. Knowing the characters personally, I am now in the act of scraping myself off the floor. Holy crap! Can this woman write or what? More so is the gift of finding, treasuring and documenting this moment of extraordinary beauty amongst the reality of two womens loss and pain. Cousin Pat Rocks!

  8. a really cool looking tree.
    a sad and scary story. charlies mom is at the tail end of this dreaded disease and it is a painfully sad way to leave…
    congrats cousin patty!! i’d pay you if i could :)

    • It is such an unfair leaving, isn’t it, Francie. I told your mother today that you called me on Inauguration Day! She loved it and we both said how your Dad would simply be smiling at the thought.

  9. Rocky relationships need safe harbors to be able to remember why we keep trying. Keep this moment in your heart and mind’s eye forever…. it took the “young one” to finally find that safe harbor. Congrats on winning the prize… you deserve only the best !!!

    • HJ, you put your finger on it…it did take the young one to make this moment of grace. Mr. Randolph wanted to know if I photograph in my pajamas!! Hoot.

  10. your long time friend was also a very special friend of mine many years ago in san francisco….i just wanted to touch and hold her to make things right..as she would often say, “balls” what a life.

    • Bob, that was her favorite expression back in the day for sure. I haven’t heard her say it for years and years, tho. But, in my mind, I hear it very clearly followed by her loud laugh.


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