The Runner

By: pbcmedia

Nov 12 2009

Tags: , , , , ,

Category: Aging, ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE, BEHIND THE WHEEL SERIES, Dementia, Friends, Health


Focal Length:16mm
Shutter:1/0 sec
Camera:Canon EOS 5D

As a teenager, she could water ski on one ski better than I did on two.  But, for the record, just about everyone water skied better on one ski than I did on two, but she water skied better than all of them combined.

She moved in and out of the wake of my brother’s boat like a controlled rocket and later on in life would organize her life in similar fashion.  She was one of my best friends and we couldn’t have been more opposite: she was organized and neat and athletic and I was, well…not any of those things.  Each time she donned her work out clothes, I was somewhere in the world earning my credentials as a Zen Sloth Master.

In mid-life, she became a runner on autumn roads near her house and then a power-walker around the nearby reservoir.

She was always in motion.

Today, at 65, she is still capable of going up and down basement stairs like a young girl, but no longer is sure what it is she is supposed to do after reaching the bottom step.

When my mother died in 2001, she opened her home to our family and friends as the cemetery was a half a mile from her house.  She made my mother’s fish chowder as a surprise. (This involves fish heads, people–even I don’t make it.)

Walking into her kitchen and smelling that chowder broke my composure in those mysterious ways that familiar music chords or aromas of childhood can do.   “Oh, thank you so much, ” I said to her, blubbering into the creamy stock.

Two weeks ago, I visited her (I live an hour away) but she did not remember I was coming and was not particularly happy to see me.  She was agitated because of something down in the basement– a pipe she said–and though I went down to look with her, nothing seemed wrong and I was at a loss as to how to help.

And, for the record again, anyone seeking my plumbing counsel is already in trouble.

She kept going up and down the basement stairs trying to explain what she was worried about but her language skills have been severely mangled by her dementia and we ended up out in the yard with her pointing to the outside faucet.

When I made the brilliant suggestion of calling a plumber, she just waved that idea away like a mosquito.  She remembers being more competent than a plumber and, before this disease hit, she was.

She went to the refrigerator and took out two cooked chicken breasts and began chopping them up.   I thought initially maybe she did remember I was coming because chicken salad was usually what she made us for lunch.  But, soon after putting in some mayonnaise, she brought the whole bowl over and put it in front of me with the big spoon still in it.

I kept talking about something or other and got up and went to the refrigerator to scout out some bread and found the entire frig just about empty and the only bread to be seen was some sad moldy pita bread in its plastic wrapper.

By the time I walked back to the table, she had gone back down to the basement to check on the pipes and when she came back up again she sat down at the table.

She looked at the bowl of chicken salad and said, “What’s that?”

I got her a plate and a fork and gave her some chicken salad and, then, began eating from the bowl she gave me while she contemplated the plate in front of her.

My composure broke again on this day in her kitchen but this time, not from gratitude and nostalgia, but from the cruelty that exists in the world and in the future of far too many of us.

She didn’t see my blubbering this time because she had to go back down to the basement.

©Pat Coakley 2009


16 comments on “The Runner”

  1. Oh, Pat, what a sad story about a strong woman, as though her personality was leaking out through an invisible crack like the leaking pipe she was worried about, until there is just a shell who looks like the person you cared about for so many years. And unfortunately it will not get better. That fall photo of the lone woman by the side of the road complements your words so well.

    • Don, that thought of her personality leaking out through an invisible crack, like the pipe, is a very poetic one, and true. This situation is even more complicated than this one story can convey but I have no heart or energy to write more about it.

  2. I was wondering what you were up to, and to be honest I’m glad that it’s someone other than you that has the problem. It’s not a nice thing to say, but I know you and not her. Yet it is her that you know so well and us so little and for that reason I wish you well for the trials that face you both.

    Over the years as I heard more about Alzheimer’s, I’ve started to think it might be some kind of strange kind of blessing.

    What!! I hear people scream.

    Although Alzheimer’s is very upsetting for those who witness people they care about turn into people they don’t recognize; the people suffering in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s won’t be fearing their eventual deaths because they won’t have the wherewithal to realise what’s going on.

    A type of mental anaesthesia if you will.

    • Oh, Razz, you are a gem and am grateful for your concern and kick in the a to post something. Leave it to you to find that bright side of Alzheimer’s! The closer you get to it, and I by no means wish this on you or anyone you know, but, my friend, I think you may revise your blessing theory if you have more experience with it. There is no mental anesthesia really, just increased and often scary confusion and agitation. They may not fear death any longer it’s true, but so many other fears take fill the void.

  3. Pat, words fail me now. I can only send you a hug. Know that I am thinking of you and sending you strength to see this through with your friend.

    • Thanks, Amber. I have the strength to see her through, that I know, but my role is limited. It is the others in her life that I worry about.

  4. heartbreaking. thank goodness you are still there for her, even as it has to be thoroughly bittersweet, again, bittersweet. and in this moment i am so grateful. goodness, kindness and all of the wonders that contrast. the sadness mixed with lovely memories of her running is shown so well in the photo

  5. This one, Tipota, has a more bitter than sweet behind-the-scenes dynamic as well, just to make an intolerable situation even more complex.

  6. Lovely piece Patricia. A tribute to the great girl we have known and so admired in better days. And her story now is one to be told. It can happen to any one of us. You are the best of friends and I know she is grateful in her own way. Such a tough thing to watch people suffer. Period.

  7. sad, so much sadness

  8. What a heart-rending story, my friend. We are starting to see the very early signs of this in my father. He’s still of enough mind to admit that things just aren’t right, and that makes it even more sad. Not to belittle or trivialize your experience, just to admit that this sort of thing is more widespread than we ever want to realize . . .
    Watched “The Class.” Thanks so much for the suggestion. And seeing as how you’ve been sans internet for a time (if I read your last post correctly) you may have missed this . . . I finally got around to writing about your car washer . . .

    • Brian, don’t see any attempt to belittle or trivialize this experience (you couldn’t anyway even if you tried)…am glad you enjoyed The Class…just went and read your story. You are the only egghead to be thinking about Hume while in a car wash.

  9. Pat,
    How very,very sad. Your essay was so moving. I worry about this myself as I know for a fact that in runs in our family.

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