“Yes. I remember Helen very well. I’ll never forget her.”
“Yeah,” he says with a softly rising inflection that seems to add finality. “I pray the rosary for her every day.” His eyes look through me to a different time when the carpeting is not beige and a little slip of a girl with curly red hair skips from the kitchen, licking a smudge of powdered sugar and milk from her upper lip. He does not know me anymore although I’ve been a part of his family over the past thirty years. The living room looks to me much as it had twenty years ago, with the same velour-print sofa, against the wall, across from a picture window that looks out on the afternoon sun and an electrical substation on the other side of the street.
“Remember my dad?”
“Yes, I do…George–wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he nods again, speaking more to himself than to me. “He’s not here anymore.”
“No. He’s in that better place, Clem, where we’ll all go someday.” I wanted to say in Heaven, but I’d already said that and it felt so cliché-ish. It’s what everyone says. It’s what you tell your child when their goldfish dies.
I saw him last four or five months ago when he still knew me. He had taken me out to the garage to show me how he had organized and labeled everything so that he might better find something he’d need and I helped him replace a broken latch on the screen door leading out of the sunroom. I remembered the previous summer when he’d taken apart an electric power washer and then forgotten how to put it together, and how he smiled two hours later after I’d somehow managed to reassemble it. That long weekend visit was punctuated by card games and reminiscing around the kitchen table. He remembered Helen then too, but with more clarity, such that he could understand why he was crying.
When I saw him two nights ago, just before one in the morning, after a 13 hour drive across three states, he was walking from the bathroom to the bedroom at the end of the hall. His steps were short and unsteady behind the walker as he was helped along by his wife. Shirtless, with disheveled hair of that iron-grey that is more black than white, and a face more unlined and clear than one would expect after eighty years, he looked at me with eyes so empty of recognition that I was startled, and wished I were somewhere else.
This morning, when I came up from the basement where I’d slept in Jimmy’s old bedroom, I found him sitting at the kitchen table with a pile of coins that he was trying to count, moving them into a plastic bowl one by one. He looked up and I said good morning to him and he replied in kind. I greeted him by name and reminded him who I was, “Shaun—Suzy’s husband,” and he nodded, repeating it after me, just like he had the previous morning; each day as though it were the first. After a few minutes of counting, and my one-sided conversation about Jimmy’s little boy, he looked up at me, blinking back tears, and asked, “Remember Helen?”
It’s ninety degrees outside, but with the air conditioning the sun through the picture window feels good on my arms. He’s sitting in the electric recliner to the side of the picture window, angled so he can see out the window, and I’m sitting on the other side of the window in a high backed chair that was more comfortable than it looked, my feet up on a matching ottoman.
He leans forward and looks into the sky. “It’s going to rain,” he says. I twist around to see a couple of tall wispy clouds above the distant horizon in a clear blue sky otherwise so devoid of clouds that the two that are there seem anomalous. That evening there’s thunder, lightning, and the following morning three quarters of an inch in the rain gauge.
The skin on his forearms is loose and I remembered the time I was on the roof helping him wrap some decorative tin around the chimney flue. He’d cut the tin with the snips, then took the two sharp edges in his bare hands and tore the rest of the strip in two. I remembered how he could take a tiny screw in thick fingers and make it go in a small hole in a deep dark place that I didn’t understand.
He sinks back into the chair, then looks over at me and asks, “Remember Helen?”
“I do, Clem. I’ll always remember her.”
“I pray the rosary for her every day,” he says.
“I know you do. We all pray for Helen, Clem.”
“Yeah.” He wipes the tears from his eyes, the memories more distant week by week such that he understands less and less why he feels such grief, only knowing that he does.
Dementia is a terrible and all too common illness that affects 5-8% of people over the age of 65, and that number doubles every five years. There are many causes of dementia although the most common seems to be Alzheimer’s. Most forms of dementia are degenerative (irreversible) and manifest themselves by decreasing cognitive function over time.
Some causes of dementia are reversible (metabolic, some medications, normal pressure hydrocephalus, brain tumor, vitamin deficiency, chronic alcohol abuse); so, it is important to see your physician to rule out these causes that can be addressed; and also for consideration of treatment with medications that can slow down the progression of the disease.
Many famous people have suffered from dementia, perhaps most famously, Ronald Maximus.
Dementia is, I think, more difficult on the loved ones of those so affected as the patient themselves are largely unaware of their deterioration, other than in the initial stages.
For those diagnosed with dementia, know that there is help and treatment, so take hope, and treasure the time with family and loved ones, as we all should be doing anyway.
For those family members and loved ones of the affected individual, know that there is help and treatment available (and actually partake of it for respite), so take hope, and treasure your loved one all the days of their life, as we all should be doing anyway.
Wow, it’s not even Thanksgiving, and I’m posting the meaning of Christmas? It seems that way. Actually, it is my December contribution to the NWTC “What’s Cooking Newsletter.” For some reason I struggled with a topic–all I knew is that I wanted it to be “Christmassy.” I had wanted to write a piece of historical, flash fiction, like maybe about St. Nicholas as a boy, but I couldn’t readily find enough information about his early years to make it historically accurate, but then, I suppose that’s why it’s called “flash fiction.”
As a child, Christmas meant to me; presents, cookies, great TV, sledding, and somewhere towards the bottom of the list I might actually say Christ; although I couldn’t promise you that he figured into the equation except, maybe, as an afterthought during the Christmas mass. Sometime after Thanksgiving, I’d start paying attention to the TV guide. “Is Frosty on tonight?” I’d ask my mother, and eventually, on one blessed night she’d answer, “Why, yes he is.”
Of course, this was years before the advent of those VHS tapes, and their larger precursors, whose name escapes me now, which allowed the watching of programs ad-lib, and ad-nauseum. Nowadays, you can wirelessly live-stream Frosty from a remote server onto a hand-held device. But, back then, way back in the 60’s and 70’s you could only watch Frosty, and Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and Rudolph once a year; so, of course, it was very special. And every year I cried at the end when Frosty turned into a puddle of ice-water. And every year I’d watch, terrified, as Rudolph got trapped in the cave of the Abominable Snowman, not absolutely convinced that he would escape, even though vaguely remembering that he did the year before.
On those special nights, I could eat milk and cookies in the living room while lying on my stomach on the carpet–my favorite was peanut-butter cookies and next was chocolate-chip. I don’t think skim milk was invented back then, so whole milk it was, and towards the end of my stack of cookies the only thing left was a lumpy slush of warm milk and cookie crumbs in the bottom of the glass, which I was loathe to drink because I only liked cold milk, and it didn’t seem natural to drink it warm, especially so, filled with left over soggy cookie-remnants as it was.
I couldn’t say when I stopped watching the annual Christmas programs, but I suspect it was not long beyond the discovery of the truth about Santa—kind of like a Christian Bar-mitzvah, when a boy becomes a man, except that it’s not celebratory, and there’s no formal ceremony. Okay, that’s probably a poor analogy–the point being that there’s a line, a life-line you might say, drawn in the sand of our lives, in which that which came before is different from that which comes after: before, the childhood belief that a jolly man, with a soft white beard, red suit, and black shiny boots leaves presents under a tree for you in the night: after, the realization that the jolly man is a make-believe myth, no more real than a cartooned Frosty or animated-puppet Rudolph.
I can’t remember if it was my father’s or mother’s voice telling me about Santa over forty years ago, “Santa is a fairy-tale, Shaun; but it’s based on St. Nicholas, who was a kind man with a white beard who traveled around the country giving people gifts a long, long time ago.”
I didn’t take much solace then from the reality offered of St. Nicholas, a long-gone relic from some remote past, more than a thousand years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 even. He seemed a poor replacement for a ruddy cheeked, bearded man whose red-velvet lap I could sit on and reverently whisper into an attentive ear all the treasures I wanted that year for Christmas. But what young child could understand the context of St. Nicholas’s life without the gentle interpretation of Santa Claus, Sinter Klaas, Papa Noel, Babbo Natale, Kerstman, and so on, all around the world.
As an adult, Christmas means to me; Christ, beautiful music, decorating the tree with Sue, midnight Mass, smiles and good cheer, chocolate and other sweet temptations, and towards the bottom of the list I suppose I’d put presents, because they’re always important for the little ones. Christmas has become an immaterial state of mind, as opposed the material world of Hot-Wheel race car tracks, plastic GI Joes, and Tonka trucks of years past, with the in-between times filled with a succession of life-lines marking points in life where nothing was as it was before—points both sorrowful and joyful, each an occasion for growth in this great pursuit of life. What Christmas is, is an annual marker, a season of reflection and appreciation for the year just past; and lastly, a time for humongous, frosted sugar cookies.
Lot of firsts for me, on POD #5: first real bath in two weeks (at least, as real as it could get), first day on crutches, first day back out in the public. One thing that I hadn’t anticipated was the reaction I received from children, aged 3-9, or so; and that reaction was empathy, kindness, compassion, and curiosity. This is what I mean by our “default human condition,” in The Relativity Diet—when I write about the default condition being one of happiness, like a child.
In the mall, Sue and I noticed small children looking at me, seemingly enchanted by this overly large person with an overly large “owie.” One small boy was holding his mother’s hand and as he passed, his faced turned, and turned, until he stumbled and fell. He didn’t say anything, but several other children, mostly girls it seemed, told their mommy that ‘that man has a big owie.’ To the ones brave enough to ask, I told them that I had a bike accident, but that I wore a helmet, otherwise, I’d have a big owie on my head. I remember one darling little girl in a pink flowered sundress who passed me on the left, she was on the other side of her mother, so, she lagged behind and waved, with a big beautiful smile. It was important, I think, for her to know that I knew that she noticed my “owie,” and hoped I’d be feeling better.
Naturally, all the adults were very nice too, although it’s entirely likely that a few may have thought ‘I wonder what stupid thing he did to end up like that;’ given that the default human condition does tend to get corrupted by the passage of time, and humanity’s stain.
I took a break in front of Gloria Jean’s, where I could rest my foot. Periodically, I’d shift my foot and grimace a bit, just to let the passer’s-by know that I was suffering; but then Sue stopped by my table with a sugar free, vanilla, skinny, iced-late; and all discomfort was quickly forgotten.
I heard someone from behind approaching in a hurried, loud gait, with short quick steps, almost like, but too coordinated for, the festinating gait of Parkinson’s. The Doppler Effect announced her appearance on my left.
A young lady; thirties, of Mediterranean descent, pretty, in a tight khaki skirt that came to below her knees and wearing at least four-inch, spiked heels entered the anticipated visual field, before disappearing into Younker’s, the clickety-clackiting of her heels gradually softening to nothing, like a departing train. I think the curious characteristic of her gait was due to khaki-restricted, twelve-inch strides; or perhaps from an inability to balance on heel spikes beyond a stride-length of one foot; or, more likely, it was a combination of the two.
After she’d passed, Sue said, “did you see her spine?” I didn’t fully recollect, but thought she may have had a pronounced dorsal kyphosis, induced by a cell phone held to her left ear.
I held up an imaginary pair of black, faux-patent-leather, pointy shoes, with five-inch spikes in my hands and said, “how about these, ma’am, we call this model ‘The Spine-Destroyer, with the Bunion-Booster Bonus;’” and, assuming an sophisticated insouciant air, much as I would imagine a secular European, like Richard Dawkins, behaving, I added, “Perhaps she’s a from a religious order practicing mortification of the flesh.”
Sue snorted, “oh…please–the only one being mortified around here is me.”
“The Mortification of Sue Melarvie…has a nice sound to it, like the sound of a a book or something,” I said in agreement, thinking of my bath this morning, at least a hundred urinal emptyings, and other distasteful, burdensome tasks, not fit to soil my beautiful blog with.
We ended the day at Sam’s Club, where I latched on to a lil’Rascal. I owned the store. Here’s a few pictures, including one of my back, as I made a bee-line for the samples, only to realize that, this being Sunday evening, there were none.
In his book The Everlasting Man, GK Chesterton wrote; fortunately for me, on page 34, because I’ve yet to push past page 100:
“Art is the signature of man.”
He makes the point that man stands alone, above all else; as special, supernatural, the very image of God:
“Man is the microcosm; man is the measure of all things; man is the image of God.” (pg. 35, thank goodness)
He uses art as his argument for that. From the beginning of time, man has had the awareness, the desire, and the need to express himself if for no other reason than to externalize his within on the without. Evidence of this is the art of the caveman (or cave-lady): do you think he or she painted with colored clays and water on the wall of a musty cave in 10,000 BC so that a young boy in France could discover it, and GK Chesterton expound upon it, in 2000 AD; and I could blog about it in 2100 AD? Of course not; it was done because of the human essence–that what religion calls soul; what de Chardin refers to as the within, meaning consciousness.It is from de Chardin that I also borrowed the without, which is a term he coined to refer to the material, physical world.
I’ve spent hours watching apes and monkeys at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, NE with my granddaughters. Never once did I see a pattern scratched into the dirt with a stick. I did see some excrement smeared on a stone, but failed to discern a particularly pretty pattern or design.
I’ve spent hours SCUBA diving under the sea. As intelligent as the Cetacean are reputed to be, never once did I see an exhibit of dolphin-art, whatever that might be—nay, not even a dolphin-collection of pretty shells.
I live in the country, kind of, at least enough so that I often see animals, large and small. Never once have I observed a deer gazing west towards the sun’s settling rays, spell-bound by the beauty of the colors thrust heavenward.
The agnostic and the atheist would say that man is an animal, only special in the sense of having evolved to a higher level of function, but an animal nonetheless–we’re born, we thrash around a bit, we die, end of story says they. On the contrary, both Chesterton and de Chardin make eloquent cases for the exceptionalism of man in The Everlasting Man and The Phenomenon of Man, respectively. We are special. You are special. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
It’s been estimated that during the course of the day 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts course through ones’ mind, most of them nonsensical and circular. You know, that voice in your head–what? It’s only me. Uh-oh.
I find that a good way to quiet my mind is to exercise, aerobically, outside on a beautiful day, and focus on the without rather than the within.
Things are not always as they seem.
Take something solid and heavy; for instance, like a brick:
the closer you look at it, the more it disinigrates into increasingly more miniscule parts;
each subsequent smaller part becoming more and more similar,
ultimately approaching unity.