Way back in 2003 I scheduled Peter for a baseline neurological exam because he’d exhibited a number of angry flare-ups, so very unlike him. During the visit the doctor gave him three things to remember: fire truck, airplane, tree. He remembered all of them, and did well on all elements of the exam which included knowing the day of week, the date, and drawing a clock with a specific time.
A subsequent MRI showed only tiny amounts of the amyloid strands that “clog” thinking. A good sign, the doctor said.
At follow-up eighteen months later, same standard tests, but when the doctor gave him three things to remember — fire truck, airplane and house — he told her she’d changed her list from the year before. She was pleased he remembered and confessed she’d forgotten what words she usually said. He got good marks that day too, though I knew he wasn’t quite as sharp with answers to her questions, plus his usual teasing repartee was missing.
He didn’t say, but he was worried. So was I.
Every now and then I’d ask him to remember three things I’d list, tell me the day of the week, or draw a clock. Remembering three things became more and more difficult, he guessed at the day of the week, but he could always draw a clock.
One evening I asked him to draw a clock that showed 6:24. I tore a page out of my little datebook for him to draw on. “A.M. or P.M.?” he asked.
“A regular old fashioned clock, silly,” I said.
His drawing is below. My scribbles at the top were to show him how a lot of people with dementia draw a clock. At the bottom is Peter’s clock. I complimented him on his preciseness, especially the big hand showing twenty-four minutes past the hour. “The little hand isn’t quite right,” I said. “Close, but no cigar.”
“Nunh unh, no-o,” he said. “When the big hand is coming down, the little hand is moving ’round too. This is right!’
Why did I question an engineer? He was right, of course. The old line, Never ask an engineer the time or he’ll tell you how to build a clock, still applies.
Another year passed and it was apparent Peter wasn’t his old self. Increased memory loss, inability to come up with the words for common items, and confusion about time and place occurred daily. Worse, he was having trouble writing checks to pay bills, and doing routine chores.
Back to the neurologist we went.
She performed those same standard tests. He could no longer remember the three things, nor did he know the day, date, or year. She prescribed commonly used Alzheimer’s drugs: Namenda, to slow dementia’s progression, and Aricept to ease confusion.
Another MRI showed an increase of the “sticky stuff.” Damned plaque! I thought that was only found on teeth.
I scheduled yearly visits.
This past spring the doctor said he was “mid-stage,” though his ability to count backwards rapidly by sevens, another standard test, continues to astonish the doctor and me. I can barely count forward by sevens! But then he is an engineer, numbers and calculations are still easy for him. And he continues to do soduko and crosswords every day, though I’ve noticed a decline in both interest and accuracy.
Though the doctor said “mid stage” I’ve read ahead — he’s exhibiting some “late stage” symptoms. A month ago he couldn’t remember our granddaughter’s name when he saw her picture, he didn’t know what the garbage disposal was for, and simple one-on-one conversations are almost impossible.
Recently, he started working on his 1/78th scale Cutty Sark model ship again — he built the hull and did all the “easy” stuff years ago. He hadn’t touched it for five years or more. I mentioned this to the doctor because it was encouraging, even though I know there’s no hope for true improvement or cure. She suggested getting him a set of Legos “after he finished the boat.” Peter didn’t react, but I was insulted for him. This isn’t a bathtub toy he’s building after all!
During the visit she asked if he noticed changes in his memory. He said he knew he was “having a hard time,” but he could never forget me. Ah, he can still layer on that olde English charm when he wants to. And the doctor laughed.
The next day I happened to come home from a luncheon with my name tag still in place. “Oh, I remember your name,” he said.
“You’d better!” I said.
He pointed to my tag and laughed. I didn’t see that one coming.
Header photo: Rainbow on the eastern shore, Virginia, 2013
2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.