We were an instant couple, Peter and I, when we met forty-some years ago. At the time, I was a struggling single mom with two young daughters to raise. “Peaks and valleys,” Peter would counsel when I fretted, “life is all peaks and valleys.”
I’ve thought about his mantra recently and wondered, would he even understand the meaning of the words now. As his dementia worsens the valleys are deeper and wider, the peaks, fewer.
A week ago, we teetered on the edge of an abyss.
The day started beautifully, definitely a “peak.” Soft warm breezes encouraged me to garden and Leslie came for lunch and cards. Perfect. Peter used her visit as an excuse to take his lunch to the basement where he’d watch t.v. Two hours later, when I yelled to tell him tea was ready, the silence below screamed. The basement was dark.
I dashed upstairs calling his name. Gone.
He’d sneaked out while Leslie and I sat just outside. I use “sneaked” advisedly because he’s done it a few times. He has a “stealth” mode that allows him to slip away. Nobby, usually at his side, wasn’t with him because for the previous four days he hadn’t walked at all. His woeful puppy eyes told us his old arthritic knees ached.
Leslie took charge immediately, while I, heart-hammering and generally useless, attempted to follow her orders. She called the police, family, friends, told me to send photos of Peter to her, posted Facebook messages. With three photos on her phone, she sped off to nearby businesses — grocery, restaurants, bakery, wine shop, hairdresser. I stayed home to answer phone calls and texts, to be there in case he came back on his own. I called friends to be on the lookout and soon, unbidden, Peter’s carers, Karen, Bill and Mark, showed up to offer help and support.
The power of Facebook startled me, a hesitant user. Re-posts popped up quickly. Granddaughter Samantha, who lives in Washington, DC, has a friend with a niece who’s interning with our local EMT squad. Some four hours after I discovered he was gone, the young woman, thanks to her aunt’s post, spotted Peter on the steps of a church on the northern edge of town.
Meanwhile, son-in-law Martin, directed by Sam 267 miles away, went to collect Peter. Sam was still on the phone with her dad when Peter got into his car. “Want to talk to him?” Martin asked Sam.
She said yes, even knowing her Dad-Dad hates phones. “How you doin’, Dad-Dad?”
He chuckled. “Well, Luv, I thought I was going to get away,” he said, “but they caught me.” Hours walking in the hot sun, no hat, badly sunburned, no water, tired and confused, he was still ready with a joke. Just after seven Martin brought him home. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” he said.
He hugged me so tightly I feared for my ribs. “No, not in trouble, but Steps. Will. Be. Taken,” I said, raising my left eyebrow to high-threat-warning level. He shook his head and gazed at the roomful of people without seeing them.
“Why did I do that, where did I go,” he asked over and over.
“If you don’t know why, then no one does,” I said, “and where you were is a mystery to all of us.”
Steps have been taken. Leslie installed door alarms that screech when the doors are opened and I’ve chosen a bracelet-style gps that will help me keep track of him. He’ll hate it.
In the meantime, we walk Nobby together. Peter doesn’t like it because he wants to be out in the neighborhood on his own with his dog. I don’t like it either because the half hour they walked was thirty minutes to myself, to read, write, or do nothing at all.
In that one afternoon, our lives changed more dramatically than the day, years ago, when the doctor diagnosed “early dementia.”
From now on the peaks will be ever smaller, the valleys, broader and more difficult to traverse.
Header photo: Victoria Falls, Zambia, September, 2005.
Bottom photo: Alaska Range, Mt. KcKinley in the distance, 2006.
2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.