‘Who in the world am I?’ Alice asks.

“You’re not working a puzzle,” I said to Peter one day at lunch. “Have you finished already?” (He always does a Sudoku, Wordy Gurdy, or crossword; I always have my nose in a book.)

“A puzzle?” he asked. “Do you mean you?”

I laughed. “That’s good,” I said. “Haven’t heard that one before.”

Peter laughed too. “Neither have I.”

That little glimmer of the old Peter was a peak in an otherwise down day. Our laughs lately are a bit further between, but we milk the ones that come along.

This 500-piece “Alice in Wonderland” jigsaw puzzle was a family Christmas gift several years ago. Over the past weeks, Peter put it together again, with more than a little help from Samantha, Leslie and Martin. I’ve often thought Peter’s dementia…Alzheimer’s…must make his head feel jumbled like Alice’s: “I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

Indeed.

 

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‘What do I want?’

Peter and I spent the morning of June 6 at the Commemoration of the Normandy Invasion at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. We’ve visited many times in the sixteen years since it opened. We go because we remember D-Day. Well, I do. Peter doesn’t remember much anymore, but I’d hoped the grandeur of the place would spark a memory.

A soft breeze wafted around us as we walked up the alleé and through the immense granite Overlord Arch. Above us, Allied flags flapped in the wind. As we gazed out at the awe-inspiring depiction of a Normandy beach, a soldier fighting to gain the cliff, another sprawled in the sea, Peter said, “We’ve never been here before, have we?”

* * *

After the ceremony we went to Roanoke for lunch. When I drove into Montano’s parking lot, his eyes lit up. “I know where I am now,” he said. We were seated quickly at one of Theresa’s tables. After so many Montano’s lunches, she knows us.

She patted Peter on the shoulder. “You remember, we don’t have Guinness on tap anymore,” she said, apologizing.

He shook his head, and finally settled on another choice. When she returned with his beer, she said, “Ready to order? Too many decisions, I know.”

He looked at me. “What do I want?”

“Fish and chips.”

“Yes, that’s what I want.”

When Theresa brought our food, he asked me about the contents of the three little cups on his plate.

“Tartar sauce. Horseradish sauce. Malt vinegar,” I said, pointing to each. “You use malt vinegar. It goes on the fish and chips.”

He dipped his spoon into the tartar sauce. “Oh, that’s good,” he said. Once upon a time, he wouldn’t even have tasted tartar sauce. “Too sweet,” he would’ve said. He dipped his spoon in again. “I could eat it all.”

He wrinkled his nose at the horseradish sauce, but then, he picked up the container of vinegar, put it to his lips…and…

NO-O! Don’t drink the vinegar!” I yelped. Too late.

He shuddered. His eyes watered. “Bl-l-l-ech! Wasn’t supposed to drink it, was I?”  He laughed and choked at the same time.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the look on his face. “You’re supposed to sprinkle it on the fish and chips.”

He did “sprinkle” the remaining vinegar, but then, to add to my shock, he plastered the fish with tartar sauce. By that point, I guess I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d licked the container clean.

We’re reflected in the granite Overlord Arch in Bedford.

 

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Header: Monument at front of National D-Day Memorial, Bedford, Virginia

Cork, blown!

Individually, the silly, almost daily things we blame on the dog — Nobby did it — aren’t really worth mention: a china tea cup in the butter compartment; tiny potatoes tied up in a green newspaper bag and tucked in with the bread; Peter’s three nights in a row sleeping on the couch because he forgot to come to bed; him not only mowing the grass two days in a row, but three times in one day. All quickly forgotten by him, but I’m buried in what feels like wet sand.

Most Alzheimer’s caregivers know that “going with the flow” is often the best way to handle such things. But sooner or later, even the most patient of them — us — will blow a cork, a lid, a fuse, a gasket.

I am not a patient caregiver.

I’d sorted the edges of the 252-piece puzzle Carolynn brought to me, and put about half the frame together on the kitchen counter. The rest, I’d organized by colors on paper plates. Peter enjoys jigsaws and he’d placed several pieces while waiting for dinner one evening.

Next morning, I came downstairs, turned the coffeemaker on, filled Nobby’s bowls, sorted our daily rations of pills, then noticed — WHAT? — the puzzle had been cleared away, all the pieces were back in the box. The paper plates were stacked neatly, empty.

My lid hit the ceiling. I needed a new fuse. My gasket wanted replacing.

In the previous several weeks I’d warned, if he didn’t stop moving my “stuff,” I would wreck his towers of coins, even knowing that his need to organize helped him control his out-of-control brain. So that morning, sputtering like a kettle on the boil, I stomped down to his desk, took a deep breath, and raked my hands through his stacks of quarters.

I was furious, childish beyond reason. How absolutely infantile of me! If Peter noticed at all, he never said, and I’m sure he was quite content to re-stack the coins and make order out of the chaos I’d caused. That evening, I sorted puzzle pieces once more and started putting it together again. To be safe, I wrote “LEAVE THIS ALONE” on a paper plate.Thursday,  we browsed through a local thrift shop. From a table laden with jigsaw puzzles, Peter picked up a brilliantly colored 1500-piece one that would measure 33″ x 24″ when assembled. He debated buying it — too intricate, he wondered? In the end, he paid the 53 cents and brought it home. In the days since he has done little else but sort. By last evening, he had more than half of the outside in place, the rest of the edge pieces set aside, waiting.

Will I box the pieces up and put them away like he did to me? No.

Will I try to work the puzzle with him like we used to do? No. Togetherness is more than he can handle.

Will I slot a few pieces in when he’s not around? Darn right, I will.

Pretty French scene reminds me of our trip to Nice 12 years ago. Peter doesn’t remember, but I do.

 

Header: Kim McFarland painting of perplexed Westie with a ladybug on his nose.

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Domino effect.

“You know how to play dominoes, Pete?” Bill asked on Wednesday. That question was all it took to wind my husband up after four weeks of down.

Not only did Peter go on and on about the social aspects of an Englishman “going ’round t’pub” on a Saturday afternoon, leaving “the little woman at ‘ome,” he chattered about the game  of dominoes itself. Bill always wanted to learn how to play, he said.

Peter’s sudden change four weeks ago forced me to act. I’d reached the end of my rope, stressed, dithery, muddled, still trying to handle everything myself. Leslie and Carolynn got after me, good daughters that they are. As happened, Bill, who’s been helping Peter for almost six years, suddenly had more available hours per week.

Serendipitous!

Monday, I’d arranged to use more of Bill’s time and provided a list of ideas and hints to guide him. In spite of Peter’s usually cheery persona, he isn’t always an easy client. And there are a lot more things to be aware of these days. His confusion has amped up.

So Bill was primed about dominoes. He no sooner mentioned the game than I began to look for our set. “It’s really easy,” I said, “but Peter can keep track of which ones haven’t been played. I just play what matches.” He laughed.

The two were out longer than usual Wednesday, while three of my friends came here for a lunchtime meeting. We did have some business, but more importantly, we laughed…a lot! It was a good time.

That evening, Bill texted to ask how Peter had seemed when he came home. “He was great,” I texted back. “You struck a chord mentioning dominoes.  More like himself than he’s been since that time…four weeks ago.”

The rest of the week was mixed ups and downs, but that one big, bright UP on Wednesday made such a difference.

Today we played dominoes, Peter and I. No surprise…he won…best of three.


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2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.

Salt and pepper to taste.

“What do I eat here?” Peter asked over and over. I told him his usual Cuban pork wasn’t on the menu any longer, but he could have fish and chips. He was happy.

When our meals were served, Peter doused his three separate times with enough salt and pepper to fill all the shakers in our house. He has always used way too much of each, but lately, his habit seems even more excessive. Dementia, I’ve learned, can destroy the sense of taste, hence so much salt and pepper. In addition to over-salting, Peter has developed a sweet tooth that could make him a poster boy for the American Dentists’ Association dire warnings about sugar.

After watching salt avalanche off his mountain of fish, I pointed to the malt vinegar. “What is that?” Peter asked. I told him. “What’s it for?” he wanted to know. I raised my left eyebrow. “This is what you’ve always used, not all that salt and pepper,” I said. Malt vinegar on fish and chips is what one does, he told me early on when he introduced me to the English staple!

A sudden seismic change in my husband’s behavior has made the past few weeks troubling. I called it his “new normal” in a recent post. Not recognizing malt vinegar, nor knowing what it was for, was further sign of the change I’d noticed.

When the waiter asked if we were ready for the bill, I surprised both him and Peter. “No. I’d like coconut cake, please, and coffee. Two coffees.”

“Well, I’m having dessert then,” Peter said. The dessert menu was all photographs so it didn’t take him long to zero in on a chocolate cream puff.

Our coffees came first, each with tiny cups of half-and-half. “What are these?” Peter asked.

“Coffee creamer…you stopped using it years ago.”

He pulled a lid off. “Can I drink it?”

“No-o, you’re not five-years-old.”

He grinned and pretended he was going to drink it, then started to pour it into his beer. “Aren’t you going to finish your beer?” I squealed. I could not believe he’d leave a couple swallows of beer, much less pour cream into it. In the end, he put it in his coffee rather than waste it.

When his cream puff came we laughed. It was cantaloupe sized. Even he couldn’t eat it all. I ate every last bite of my coconut cake.

This hint for my husband to fill the S&P shakers didn’t work.

Header photo: Shakers waiting for me to fill them.

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Better to laugh

They came into the house chortling like twelve-year-old schoolboys. Peter’s laugh lines were working overtime and Bill, his longtime companion, could barely talk he was chuckling so.

“Good grief, what’s going on?” I asked.

Peter tried to answer, but gave up. He said Bill would have to tell me. “Show her your elbow,” Bill said, pulling at Peter’s sweatered left sleeve.

“No, tell her first,” Peter said, “then I’ll show her.” I couldn’t imagine what was coming.

They’d gone to one of Peter’s favorite restaurants for lunch. At the time, our area was under warning for damaging wind and hail. Schools had closed. Just as Peter opened the door, the wind grabbed it and smashed it into him. His elbow, when I finally got a look at it, had born the brunt — skin peeled back like paint on an old house and blood, lots of blood. The restaurant’s management was upset, of course, and offered to cover any medical expenses and pay for a new shirt. The bright blue butterfly bandage Bill applied to stop the bleeding was the only treatment necessary. Mother Nature should get the bill for a new shirt!

When Bill said he figured I wouldn’t let him take Peter out anymore, we all started laughing. The previous Wednesday, when he took Peter and Nobby for their weekly nursing home visit, through no fault of Bill’s, a resident threw a cup of tomato juice on Peter, thus ending the life of another shirt. And the week before that, another episode occurred that…well, um…will be the subject of another post, another time.

Of course the story of the murderous door wasn’t funny — it could have been way worse — but we laughed and laughed.

After Bill left, I cleaned the fairly large wound, about 3″ x 3″, applied a large dollop of antibiotic cream and a fresh bandage. Peter asked what had happened to his elbow.

For all the laughter and hubbub minutes before, I was gobsmacked that he didn’t remember. “A door tried to take you out,” I said. Later on, I asked if his elbow hurt. “No, why do you ask?” he said.

Laughter is often the only answer.
unknownHeader quote: Erma Bombeck

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Morning walks clear the head.

For the past week a bad cold gripped my head, a cold I caught from my husband who still insists he didn’t have one. For once, I took my own advice and lay low, resting and drinking lots of tea, force-feeding Vitamin C in various forms. I was a real grump because I couldn’t go out and play in the first snow of the season. I even forfeited my daily walks, until this morning.

img_4730Mid-morning, I heard Peter tell Nobby it was time time for a walk. The dog has adopted his master’s ways, he is not a morning dog; he needs coaxing. “Will you wait for me to get dressed so I can go with you?” I yelled. I was still in snowflake pj’s and mommy robe.

Peter smiled. “Yes! Thank  you,” he said. As I dashed upstairs I heard him tell Nobby “she” is going with us so we don’t get lost. He sounded happy. I had to hurry or he’d forget and leave without me.

We walked for nearly an hour, not so far in distance, but slowed by the dog’s need to figure out who else had walked that way.

The fresh air — mild after last weekend’s snow and near zero temperatures — revived me. Ideas began to gel, solutions to problems began to surface. By the time we came in the door, I felt better than I had in more than a week.

While I poured coffee, Peter studied the dry erase board beside me. “Today is Sunday, isn’t it?” he asked.  I nodded, then noticed he was wiping “Saturday” and “14” off the board. I’d been so wrapped up in my thoughts earlier that I hadn’t updated the message first thing, something I always do.

“Yay, you know what day it is!” I said. He smiled proudly while I updated the day and date.

Leslie called a little later. Did we want to go to a matinee and then to eat after? Yes we did. I added that information and showed the message board to Peter. Slowly, he read the words out loud, then smiled. “Something to do on Sunday,” he said.

Smiles are hard to find some days, but they are always worth looking for.

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2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

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A down day turned up.

Early morning and already there were signs that it was going to be a down day. The salt and pepper shakers were in the butter compartment of the fridge, mustard, in the silverware drawer, and we were nearly out of bread. Nothing gets my day off to a worse start than having to do without toast. Lately, Peter has been eating almost a loaf a day — two pieces of toast, three sandwiches for lunch, and at least three slices with jam at various times during the evening.

Down.

But I eked out two slices from the end of the loaf.

Up.

When Peter came downstairs, he turned the television on first thing, as usual, but the growling that followed was not on “Today.” I ignored him for a few minutes hoping he’d figure out that if he stopped pushing all the buttons the remote would “catch up” to his impatient demands.

Down.

But I gave in. He looked up with a silly smile and continued jabbing buttons. “Um, were you actually going to call somebody? That’s the phone!”

He shook his head and laughed and so did I. Might as well.

Up.

Later I asked if he wanted to go shopping. He was waiting by the door before I changed into my best jeans. My husband is always ready to “go to the shops.” No sooner did I back out the drive than he started asking, “Any news from upstate?” Even though I’d said no, he continued, “Do they have snow?” The same questions six times in seven  miles. I counted.

Down.

I parked midway between TJMaxx and Barnes & Noble. A way to get in my morning walk and finish Christmas shopping in one. I found what I wanted quickly and checked out. We headed in the general direction of the car to stow my purchases. Ah, but where had I parked? Peter really enjoyed that laugh — up — as we sloshed and searched — down.

Version 2At the bookstore, I found what I wanted so fast that Peter was disappointed. He loves to wander at Barnes & Noble. “How about a coffee?” I asked to make up for my quick trip. I ordered a java chip frappacino — up — and asked if he wanted his usual cappuccino? “Yes, whatever that is,” he said. For the twenty minutes we sat over coffee he asked, four more times, “Any news from upstate?”

Down.

When we got home, Peter looked at the clock and yelped, “It’s gone one! Have I had lunch?”

Down.

“No, just coffee, nothing to eat. Make a sandwich.” He liked that idea. I went to the basement to wrap Christmas presents. When I came up, he had his Santa hat on and was working on a 500-piece puzzle. He’d marked out its one-by-three foot dimensions carefully, correctly.

Up.

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2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

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Nobby did it.

Finding everyday things in strange places has become a daily occurrence at our house. I’ve found a milk carton in the bread drawer, Peter’s green coffee mug in the fridge’s butter keeper. Salt and pepper shakers and Coleman’s mustard are often in there too — that little compartment can hold a lot. One morning there was a plastic baggie filled with potatoes beside his chair in the family room, and the electric kettle was sitting next to the burner of our gas stove. The latter, a disaster waiting to happen.

Lately Peter insists it’s my fault that he’s never known he should put liquid soap into the sink to wash things that don’t go in the dishwasher. Likewise, it’s my fault I never told him where to put the teaspoons after I finally found all of them wrapped neatly inside a place mat. And after I’d searched all over the kitchen for the box of tea I knew I’d bought a few days before, Peter was as surprised as I was when he pulled the box out of the little table beside his chair.

“Ah ha!” I said.

“How did this get in here?” he asked.

I rolled my eyes and raised my left eyebrow, but I was smiling. “Nobby did it,” I said.

This morning around 11:30, I reminded Peter he still hadn’t taken the dog for his early walk. “I know, we’re going now,” he said. He fumbled with Nobby’s harness — he can hardly manage it anymore, but gets angry if I try to help — and started out the door wearing only a light sweater over his shirt.

“You’ll need your jacket and a hat,” I said

“But it looks like summer outside,” he said. “Looks like the sun is going to come up.”

“Peter, it’s nearly noon, the leaves are all gone, and it’s gray and cloudy and cold.”

“Oh-h, well…yes-s…,” he said as he went to get his jacket.

I sat down to write this post. Minutes later, my husband, zipped into his jacket, came up behind me. He held the dog’s leash and collar in his hand, but Nobby wasn’t attached. “Do you think Nobby wants to go for a walk? Is it too cold for him?”

“No, he’s got his fur coat on,” I said. “Go, go.” 

“OK, we’ll  back soon,” he said.

“Thanks for the warning,” I said, using one of his well-worn sayings. He laughed.

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2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

 

 

Play the cards you’re dealt.

My husband has taken to putting decks of cards in order, by suit, probably related to his need to control anything he can, however unimportant the activity seems to me. This latest obsession was especially noticeable when we visited Carolynn and Bill for a week.

Carolynn and I had put two decks of cards, a pad and pencil on the picnic table under a tree before lunch. The two of us were ready for an afternoon of canasta, part of our ritual weeklong championship.

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After we ate, Peter picked the cards up and began to lay them out, face up. He shook his head and frowned. “How do you know which deck to use?” he asked.

“We use both decks.”

“But they’re alike.”

“Doesn’t matter. Canasta is played with two decks, plus the four jokers.”

He continued sorting. When he finished, he knocked each deck sharply against the table and slid them neatly into their boxes. Even though Carolynn and I shuffled them over and over, the first hand we played after he’d organized them wasn’t well mixed. After she won that game too, we gave the cards back to Peter to organize all over again. He was happy.

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The joke is on me because later, when I Googled “organizing cards,” thinking I might learn another tidbit about dementia, I discovered instead that people around the world engage in contests to determine who can organize cards the fastest.  A young Canadian man set a record set a few years ago when he sorted a pack of cards in 00:22.60. There were no jokers in his deck though.

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The National Society of Newspaper Columnists contest winner, 2016 —
online, blog, & monthly under 100,000 unique visitors category.

Photos: Safari wallpaper