Alzheimer’s Anecdotes, Chapter 4: Daredevil Driving

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No,it’s not my wife doing the daredevil driving these days. Her Alzheimer’s Disease is definitely progressing, but she’s fully aware that she no longer has a driver’s license. It’s me she’s influenced to do the daredevil stuff.

Not that she doesn’t have a history in the sport. Back in the day, long before she and I met, Pam and her future ex used to drag race V-8 Bugs. That’s right. They owned a classic Volkswagen Beetle that served as Mommy Pam’s putt-putt errand vehicle during the week. On the weekends, however, they raced, swapping out the air cooled VW engine for a bellowing V-8 and heading to the race track. Pam drove the dragster, usually the only woman driver at the strip. Some of the male drivers were pretty nasty about that, so she fixed them by beating them. One day, a guy who was running head to head against her was making snide remarks about women drivers even as the light bar was counting down. Pam always had a policy of not getting mad, just getting even, so–making sure she had an angle that hid her action from the judge–she flashed a breast at her tormenter. The fellow immediately redlighted (took off before the green light came on and therefore disqualified himself) and she rolled to an easy victory.

All that is gone now. She can still drive well, and does, but only on private roads.

Three days ago, I needed to make a Home Depot run to round up some shelf boards and hanger poles for the closet I’m finally putting together in her bedroom suite. That will up her hanger space from its current 14 feet to a total of 24 feet, and by golly, if she can’t hang all of her clothes on 24 feet, she’s a hoarder.

The problem turned out to be my late departure. I seldom leave home in midafternoon when I know it’ll take me at least a couple of hours or more to get the shopping done and get back, but it was three something p.m. already–and just as I crossed the wash on Paloma Trail, the skies opened up. Cloudburst. This would, I knew, be scary for Pam for two reasons: The big generator that powers her window air conditioner was still running and should be shut down before the rain had a chance to be trouble at the Border Fort (which is what we call our home)…and most importantly, she’d be terrified that I might not be able to cross the wash on my return trip. I’d told her not to worry, that if the wash was too dangerous for the truck, I’d just do what a lot of our neighbors do, leave the truck parked on the highway side, cross the wash on foot, hike home (about a mile), get the Subaru Outback, and go back to manually transfer the Home Depot building supplies from one vehicle to the other.

No big deal, right?

Turns out it’s a big deal if you’re a paranoid schizophrenic with Alzheimer’s. Pammie’s been a lifetime worrywart, but the disease has added a few dimensions to her personal fear factor. She can clearly remember every dire possibility but cannot remember one word of my reassurances–at least, not one word that makes any sense to her.

Knowing this, I really should have turned around and gone back home right then…but I didn’t. Instead, I went on to her son’s place, my first planned stop. Zach had received a package for us, the first of five boxes that will, when they’re all received and assembled, comprise my new Sleep Number air bed from Utah. The 15 minute trip to Zach’s was uneventful, but only (as I found out later) because I didn’t hear my cell phone ringing. Three panicked messages, all marked Urgent (Pam marks everything Urgent) had gone to voice mail, though slowly; they didn’t show up in my inbox until 3:00 a.m. the next morning. Go Verizon.

I picked up the package at Zach’s, admired the impressive new awning he was building in front of his new mobile home (54 bags of cement just to set the post anchors), and headed back to the truck.

My phone rang. Pam, who else, and the panic attack in her voice was more than evident. Not that she admits she was that far gone, but I heard a woman on the edge. We talked for a few minutes, at the end of which I stated unequivocally, “DON’T go out in the storm to shut off that generator. It’s not worth it. I’m aborting the Home Depot mission and heading home. Honey…honey! The longer we keep talking on the phone, the longer it’s going to take me to get this rig pointed back to Paloma Trail and across the wash! Yeah, okay, see you shortly, love you too, ‘bye!”

And away I went.

The wash would not, I knew, be a low risk crossing after having been rain slickened. There hadn’t been enough action for flash flooding to be an issue, but at the moment the one lane trail across the wash would not be something I’d want to take lightly unless I was driving a helicopter. (And probably not then, since I don’t know how to drive a helicopter in the first place.) On the approach, I could see vehicles with at least two neighbors afraid to tackle the beast, just sitting along the edge a bit upstream, looking at it.

O-okay.

Our 1996 GMC Z71 four wheel drive pickup is by far the most capable off road vehicle I’ve ever driven. I was pretty sure I could manage the crossing, but one hiccup would spell disaster. Ignoring the onlookers, I eased down the north bank partway, ve-ery slowly, and touched the brakes ve-ery lightly. The Jimmy slid sideways instantly. It didn’t matter how slow the truck was moving—I could let it slip downgrade a few inches, touch the brakes, and it still slid sideways.

Our 1996 GMC Z71 four wheel drive pickup truck, by far the finest off road vehicle I've ever owned.

All righty then. I stood firmly on the brakes, stock still, going nowhere, and thought it through. Couldn’t back up. Besides, if I did, I’d look like an idiot, and with witnesses, my ego was definitely involved now. The worst part of the crossing was smack dab in front of the truck, about twenty feet of slime-slick muddy razor’s edge trail with no width to spare and a serious drop-off on the passenger side. My line would have to be absolutely perfect; if the truck slid even a foot to the side, we’d get stuck and very likely roll over to boot. Wouldn’t dare touch the brakes. Wouldn’t dare even let it just roll on through; there’d have to be just a bit of light acceleration down the final slope into the bottom of the wash. Then, the instant the danger of falling off the mini-ridge was past–the instant!–I’d need to punch the gas just so much for a few yards and then floor it to power up through the deep, loose, wet sand on the far side.

I sat there, immobile, for a full minute, perhaps two full minutes, until I had the run firmly fixed in my consciousness, and then–“Be with me, Mahanta!” I spoke silently to my spiritual guide and away we went over the scary part, across the bottom, up and out, the 350 V-8 bellowing enthusiastically as we topped out on the home side. Pulling away, tickled to have beaten the odds once again, I checked my rear view mirror. The neighbors–one in a white pickup truck, the other on a four wheeler ATV–looked like they were still there, staring at the truck with the Wooten For Congress magnetic signs plastered all over. I had no clue what they might be thinking or saying, though a good guess would be, “That guy is NUTS!”

Pam gave me a fierce hug when I walked in the door. “I knew you were coming across the wash! I knew it!” She also had a fierce headache and, sure enough, her blood pressure was up when she checked it.

Yes, there’s a touch of the natural daredevil in me, too. But there’s something else going on, something I’ve never heard anyone else mention about Alzheimer’s Disease. This may sound bizarre, but I feel strongly that Pam’s journey is for me an opportunity. When she turned off her house light while I was outside in the storm at night with a flashlight, it was an opportunity to see the humor in the situation, for the both of us to laugh together. When she needs help, it’s an opportunity for me to find a way to provide that help–even it’s something as simple as a bit of daredevil driving across a slick, dangerous wash.

I know I am truly blessed and I suspect that Pam, in her own way, is truly blessed as well.

5 thoughts on “Alzheimer’s Anecdotes, Chapter 4: Daredevil Driving

  1. I think you are nuts too. I do not do the daredevil bit, he gets too upset. Whenever we have something slightly unusual he gives orders and I had better obey them. The other day on the way home, we saw police lights in the distance. He immediately issued orders to slow down. I was going the speed limit and the lights were way off but I had to obey. So at 35 down Hereford, we drove the three miles to where the lights were. He was just giving a ticket to someone. One of these days, I will get a ticket for going too slow. I would have continued until I could actually see the car, and then slowed down, if I had not gotten my orders. He gets very bossy at times.

  2. LOL! Well, I probably am nuts.

    I don’t envy you the “bossy partner” bit. Pam doesn’t do that with me; she simply nurses the memory (she doesn’t forget THAT!) and brings it up later if or when she can issue an “I KNEW IT!” statement.

  3. I remember a while back, when you were still writing on HP, you said a doctor in (Montana? Idaho?) told you that you were put on Earth for Pam and she for you. That there’s a spiritual bond between the two of you that no one else would be able to fulfill. It becomes more and more apparent as I read about yours and Pam’s relationship. That may be why her Alzheimer’s hasn’t progressed as quickly as most patients.

  4. I think, Sha–not 100% certain, but think–you’re remembering a line or two I wrote about our time in South Dakota early on (1997-98) when Jim Simpson was her psychologist. She told him one day that she understood what she got out of our relationship but not so much what I (Fred) got out of it. Jim, who had no more than met me a time or two (I would sit in the lobby while she was in with Jim) nailed it when he replied, “Pam, you give him PURPOSE.”

    I do agree; our relationship is undoubtedly a factor in slowing down the progression of her Alzheimer’s. (At the moment, she’s delightedly cranked up Michael Jackson’s classic, Beat It, on her Bose system. Were I not at home, though, said volume would undoubtedly be tripled.)

  5. That’s exactly what I remember, Ghost.

    More power to Pam. I have a Bose, too and crank it whenever I can. Love Michael Jackson – he’s great dancing music! Good shake your booty til it hurts music! Tell Pam I’ll think of her whenever I put in my MJ CD!

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