We drove to Rhode Island for a family BBQ at my sister Maureen’s house. We were up early despite getting home from the wedding at one a.m. My arms and legs hurt. It must have been all that dancing in heels and lifting my arms up. You Make Me Want to Shout. Did they even play that song?
Before hitting the road, my husband and I went into Exeter for a walk through town along the Swasey Parkway and the river, then got a cup of coffee at Me & Ollie’s Bakery & Cafe. Their logo is Wake & Bake. That is a double entendre for those of you who know what I’m talking about.
I asked my sister to have this backyard BBQ. I wanted to see my brother and our younger sister and particularly my parents, who are now seventy-nine and eighty. It’s a two hour drive from Exeter, New Hampshire to Warwick, RI. A short trip now that I’ve moved to Florida.
The last time I saw my parents was in March. They were staying in Deerfield Beach. My dad dropped my mom off at the apartment I had just moved into in Boynton Beach. He wanted to see a spring baseball game in Jupiter. He had been very brave to travel to Florida for a week with my mom. He didn’t say it, but I knew he needed a break. My mother has Alzheimer’s. No one was really admitting it at that time, except Moe and me.
She did well that day. She knew who I was, although she couldn’t keep the grandkids straight. Was I the daughter with the two girls or the two boys? Then she would remember, with a little prompting. We went to lunch on the intracoastal. She enjoyed watching the boats and the pelicans. I listened to all the old stories, the favorite ones she tells over and over again. How she met my father at a factory she was working at. He was a college boy, she was a payroll clerk.
Back in Florida, I heard about her rapid decline and how quickly she was slipping. When I talked to her on the phone she seemed aware of what was going on. She told me she had that “thing where you forget.” “Hopefully, I’ll die of something else,” she said. This is heartbreaking to hear but I hope so too, for her sake. No one in her family had ever had Alzheimer’s. Heart attacks got them before their minds slipped away. My grandmother died of her third attack at fifty-four. Modern medicine has helped my mother make it to seventy-nine without a single heart attack. She’s very docile, never angry, like a child. She gets nervous when my father leaves the room.
The burden of all of this has fallen on Maureen. She lives less than a mile from our parents. She teaches at the elementary school we attended. Recently, she tried to get my mother to attend adult day care twice a week. It took some convincing on my Dad’s part. He still thinks he can do this on his own, although I have never seen him make toast or even boil water.
Moe got them to visit the place. It was lovely. Craft activities, physical therapy, music. My father was sold. My mother said no. Absolutely not. Back to square one. It’s frightening. She’s alone sometimes. My dad still runs five miles every other day. But she has a mind of her own. I remember how stubborn she could be. She liked to get her own way. She hasn’t lost that yet.
While driving to work today, I remembered a day when I was still working in my cubicle, driving my forty-five minute commute. Passing a small convenience store just off the highway, I saw an old man trying to cross the busy street. Something looked odd. I realized he was wearing his pajamas. A very nice pair of pajamas, dark brown flannel with a small green pinstripe. It could pass for a casual suit. He seemed very confused and in the brief moment I whizzed past the store, I became worried about him. He must have Alzheimer’s I thought, thinking of my mother. What if he walks out into the steady stream of traffic flying by? Where does he live? Does his family know he’s out walking around in his pajamas? I thought about going back, looked in my rearview mirror, and saw a man get out of his truck and run over to the confused old man.
It was a strange drive that morning, something right out of Dr. Seuss’ And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Stopped at a red light, out of the corner of my eye I saw a young man with a very large backpack walk past the passenger side window. The backpack was bulging at the seams and was topped with a rolled sleeping bag. He had a short ponytail and hadn’t shaved in several days. He was very cute. Where could he be going? The train station was at least seven miles away. Was he walking cross country?
The light turned green, I took a right down a long state road with several chain stores and restaurants. Up ahead were two guys on bicycles, also wearing backpacks.They looked to be in their mid-twenties. One bike had a milk crate tied with a bungee cord over the back wheel. The boy on that bike was wearing a bandana over his his long shoulder length hair and was riding with his arms crossed. The boy riding in front of him was wearing a knitted cap and was holding both arms straight up in the air. He appeared to be singing joyfully. Neither one was wearing a helmet or holding onto the handlebars. Where were they going? Did they know the boy back at the red light? Had he lost his bike?
I don’t know what this all means to you but to me it meant life flies by very quickly. No wonder when your mind begins to slip, everything seems like it happened just yesterday. “You bounce around the years,” as Elvis Costello says. You meet the boy you married in a factory where you both once worked, you dance at Norumbega Park to the Tommy Dorsey band, he proposes, you marry and raise four children. It all happened yesterday or so it seems. The years fly by. Suddenly you’re old, you can only remember a few of the stories, the Greatest Hits, and you play them over and over. The old man in the pajama suit was young once. He may have rode a bike, traveled somewhere on an adventure, raised his arms in song because he felt so young and alive on a beautiful fall day. His whole world was ahead of him, now he no longer knows who he is or where he is. The drive that day made me feel sad, made me think of my mother. But maybe I’m like Marco walking down Mulberry Street. I’m seeing something that wasn’t there.
I always loved this song, but it is more bittersweet than ever: