Crow’s Feet
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Crow’s Feet

Still Jack

But for how much longer? Good question

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Nicole Dieker put me on to a book, Still Alice, by Lisa Genova. It’s a story of Alice Howland, Harvard professor, who starts having memory problems, leading to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. She’s still in her fifties.

I’m only a little ways into the book so far, but the sense of déjà vu all over again is already hitting me. I’m brain-damaged, you see, so I’m terrified of losing my mind the way someone suffering from dementia would. Because it’s already started, like it did for Alice.

Chunks and bits vanish from memory

From Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Ever have one of those times when you were trying to think of a word, a regular word, a common word, the kind of word you use every day, and it’s just beyond your reach, not quite where your tongue can get it? And sometimes you think hard and get it, and sometimes you don’t think hard and get it, but you know it’s in your mind somewhere but right this second you can’t access it. Like keys in an overly large purse.

Or. You reach for that fact in your mind and it’s gone. Not “right this second try again later” gone but “no such thing there, at all” gone. Never mind digging through the purse, you’re looking at the purse and it’s quite, quite empty.

I was standing in line waiting to buy something. It was at Sears — yes, this was many years ago — and I was paying by check. Part of the process back then was having your name, address, and phone number¹ on the check, if those weren’t printed there already. So I had my name on the check, and my home address, and I needed to add my phone number so I got out my pen and…

…I had no clue what my phone number was. Didn’t know where to begin. Didn’t have it written down anywhere, not with me. And I tried to think, and I tried to think, and it wasn’t there and it wasn’t there and it wasn’t there—

—and I put the item back on the shelf, went out to my car, sat in the driver’s seat for several minutes until I stopped shaking, then drove myself home.

From then on I never left the house without a piece of paper that had my phone number and address on it. And over the years, I’ve used it.

I’m sorry, have we met?

A couple decades later, I was waiting for family after the Sunday service at my in-laws’ church when a pleasant-looking fellow came up to me and started talking to me like he knew me. Some people do things like that, it’s just the way they are, that doesn’t make them bad people. We chatted a few minutes, I was nice but non-committal, and he excused himself and wandered off to talk to someone else. My wife and her parents turned up, and as we started walking toward the car my wife said, “Did I see you talking to Larry?² Did he have anything to add?”

I looked at her with a little puzzlement and said, “Add to what? Who’s Larry?”

She stared. “Larry. Larry Longmeier. The guy who was with us for supper at Mom and Dad’s last weekend so we could quiz him about visiting France.”

Last weekend. We had been at her parents’ apartment, yes, and… there had been a guest, yes… someone from their church, who had been in France several times, and he… was with us for several hours… and… and… and there was a blank spot where his face was. Not even his face, his whole… everything. I could remember facts he had passed along, but there was no connection with a person.

I see people, and I smile at them, and after we’ve passed I’ll ask my wife if I know them, and sometimes she makes the connection for me. Yes, Judy, from the thing last fall, yes, Judy, got her! And then, sometimes, I smile and nod at my wife, and I still have no idea who that person might be.

Where did you leave them last?

My wife and I were leaving her parents’ apartment, where we’d stayed part of the weekend, and I reached in my pocket for my keys, where I always keep them. Always. I don’t leave them by the front door or whatever, if I am wearing my pants my keys are in my pocket. But this time they weren’t. Other pocket? No. Fallen out? Where? Where? Where? We searched. We covered ground. We looked through the apartment. We looked through our overnight bag. We looked through the car. Nothing. My wife drove us home with her set of keys, because I was too upset to drive.

We get home. We unpack. I get things out of my shaving kit, and there are the keys. What? Yes, yes, YES, okay, I had to take some of my pills, and I had forgotten to pack them, so I used my emergency stash that I keep in a vial on my key chain, and then… I had put the vial in the shaving kit, because that was were the pill container goes? I guess? I don’t remember. I don’t remember.

Later. Much later. Just last Thursday, actually. I go out to work in our yard, and I get my work gloves and the weeding tool and the hand clippers, like I always do. But the clippers weren’t on the wall with the other tools. But I used them, just last week. Last week? Last… whenever I used them, I used them, I did, I trimmed the… trimmed the… trimmed the bush in back, yes, yes, must have left them there, yes.

No.

Search the backyard. Search all the possible places. Search all the outside impossible places. Search the garage. Always put them back in my work pants. Always. Habits. Habits will save the memory-impaired, unless the wrong habit gets invoked. Pants got washed, though, Deb would have checked them, in the laundry room? No. Deb put them somewhere else, yes, that’s all, it’s fine, ask her when she gets home. It’s fine. It’s fine.

Deb doesn’t know where the clippers are. She hasn’t seen them.

So. I’m now entering the stage where I start buying things as replacements for other things I’ve lost. Misplaced. Caused to vanish with no trace. This time it’s hand clippers. Some day… don’t know, don’t know, don’t know, getting worse, getting worse…

I’m brain damaged

In 1982, while in the Navy and just after finishing nuclear power training, the commercial small aircraft I was in was 99.97% successful in its flight between New Haven and Groton, Connecticut, on a dark and stormy night. We got a gust of wind up the tail while on final approach, dropped below stall speed, and plopped in the marsh just short of the runway. I had a flattened nose, broken ribs, broken foot, broken wrist, and a concussion. Several hours after the crash, at the hospital, one of the nurses noticed I was unable to speak coherently; further examination showed I had lost most of the motor control on my right side.

They gave me drugs, kept me under close observation, and in a day or so I got better, in terms of motor control and ability to speak coherently. I was released from the hospital, eventually reported to my submarine (first duty assignment after nuclear power training), and I was fine. Mostly fine.

Not fine.

After a series of events I won’t go into here, I was relieved of duty and given a set of tests to determine my psychological and cognitive state. Somebody made the connection between my head injury and me suddenly being stupid. (Okay, not “stupid,” but not able to perform at my previous level when under stress. And “stress” is situation normal on an operational submarine.) As one of the doctors put it, I had the cognitive abilities of a guy in his 40s while under stress (I was mid-20s at the time). When I asked him if I would “grow into” my brain when I hit my 40s, or would I then have a brain in its 60s, he said there was no way to know.

I thought I was doing pretty well between then and a couple years ago. Episodes of mental weakness, yes, as mentioned above, but occasional, and I learned to compensate (or ignore). And then I started forgetting things at work — as a programmer, where being able to keep code in my head is vital — and reacting badly to stress, except “stress” could be getting a text and a phone call and an email while somebody was stopped at my desk. So I ran the numbers, and we could make do with reduced Social Security from my early retirement, and I retired.

I am now in my early 60s. I feel I am pretty capable compared to people in their 80s. But both my deceased parents were diagnosed with dementia in their 80s. So I don’t have a lot of hope that I’ll be mentally capable in my 70s.

I keep track

I keep a log file of how my days go. The trend is not awful. I have some bad days. I have a lot of good days.

But I know how it goes. At some point the “bad days” become “days.” Then it becomes notable when I have “good days,” which used to just be days. And by that time I will stare at my log data and not understand what it it trying to tell me.

So now what?

I’m working on adjusting. It’s a process.

I am more careful now about putting myself into unusual situations that might be stressful. No class reunions, for example. But I am still learning what “stressful” means as I age. I have hopes that Deb and I can still travel (once the pandemic restrictions ease), but I worry that events that used to be standard for long-distance travel, such as flight cancellations or driving in unfamiliar cities, might be too much on a “bad day.”

I’ve been the keeper of the family finances for over twenty years, and did well enough that my wife and I could retire early. I’m in the process of turning the vast majority of our wealth (or at least the caring of it) to a financial advisory firm; the intent is to avoid my parents’ circumstance, where accounts got lost and money had to be tracked down by my sister to pay for their care.

My wife and I live in a suburban neighborhood in a lovely house with a wonderful landscaped backyard that lets me putter about outside or just listen to the water from our artificial stream. It’s our little haven from the world, and 5–8 years we will be selling it and moving to a retirement community. One that offers independent living, but also assisted living and memory care. And my wife will not have to be the one stuck with managing the crumbling mass of incompetence her husband will inevitably become.

Our backyard last summer. Pretty, yes?

We shall see how it goes

I still like to write. I can do it at my own speed. I still have things to say. Writing about my life, and my wife, and bits of fiction and poetry.

I still like to read. I am not yet at that stage where I am a vegetable ensconced in my lounger while the TV drones on. (And we only watch streaming shows anyway.)

I suspect I will not be able to finish Still Alice. Not because I can’t appreciate it, but because I fear that the subject matter will be all too recognizable and familiar. We’ll see.

¹Land line. No mobiles yet. Loooong time ago.

²Not his real name. Because I can’t remember that, alas.

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“The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes.” (Frank Lloyd Wright) Non-fiction pieces, personal essays and occasional poems that explore how we feel about how we age and offer tips for getting the most out of life.

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Jack Herlocker

Jack Herlocker

Husband & retiree. Developer, tech writer, & IT geek. I fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and scratch where it itches. Occasionally do weird & goofy things.

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