One thing I’ve noticed frequently occurring in my wife’s ongoing Alzheimer’s journey is her brain’s magical way of scrambling incoming information. Sometimes it comes out as wishful believing, allowing Pam to see things more the way she might like to see them than they really are. Sometimes it’s the other way around, leading her to conclude the worst has happened or is about to happen. Either way, this phenomenon is common enough these days that it’s unwise for those of us who speak with her regularly to assume…pretty much anything.
Don’t get me wrong. Despite the inroads Alzheimer’s Disease has made on her personal think tank, my redhead is still brilliant and inspirational in many ways, to many creatures of God both human and non-human. She can still smell fierce weather coming, well in advance of the storm wall’s arrival. She still talks to not only our pets but also to many forms of wildlife here on our property in southern Cochise County, Arizona. (Though not to icky reddish five inch centipedes. Gato cat spotted our first such intruder of the year last night, crawling under a cabinet and then up a wall in my office. I smashed it with a spiral notebook between it and my palm strike, then crushed the fallen remains underfoot before scooping it up with an old envelope and tossing the corpse outside. We were all happy to have that happen while Pam was sound asleep in her bedroom.)
Recent examples of local animals she speaks to on a regular basis:
1. Turkey vultures. A few days ago, one such was circling overhead as we pulled into the driveway following a brief trip to town. “It circles for me all the time when I talk to it,” she said. “Keep talking to it,” I replied, digging the Canon PowerShot camera out of its holster at my left hip. The result is the following photo.
2. Mourning doves.
3. Angel, our favorite resident female coyote.
4. Desert cottontail rabbits.
6. Canyon towhees.
And many, many more.
Her children and I, however, have learned to speak directly to each other if the topic is too important to risk being misinformed. The inspiration for this post showed up yesterday. Pam had told me that her daughter, Amy, was already en route back down from her Utah home to get some “Mom time” here at the Border Fort. She was leaving on August 18 and would be here by the 21st. Never mind the fact that Amy does not require three days to cover the 800 miles between us; I tucked that bit of info between my ears and, because it didn’t matter to me one way or the other at the moment, didn’t bother to check it out. There was no need.
No need, that is, until I stopped at the Post Office on the way home from a Home Depot run and saw in the pile of mail a little bright yellow envelope addressed to me. The return address showed it had come from —- (name redacted to protect the family’s privacy).
The instant I saw that name, I knew this could not be good. —- is Carolyn’s sister. Carolyn was my second wife, Pam being my seventh. About six months ago, I’d written to Carolyn (she lives in another state some distance from Arizona), asking if she’d like to visit here in March of 2017, taking a week to help Pam while I drove to Georgia to pick up our friend Jennifer. Jennifer will be finishing a 20 year prison sentence then and must be picked up at the front gate; she’s been behind bars her entire adult life, since the age of sixteen, and would not be safe traveling alone to Arizona.
This might sound unusual, being on such good terms with an ex-wife. That only happens in an occasional movie or TV sitcom, right?
Well…no. Not right. Carolyn and I never had a cross word between us, neither during our seven years together nor in the decades that followed. There were several times over the years when one of us would help the other out when no one else could have or would have done so. Pam has loved Carolyn deeply from the first time the two women spoke on the phone together. Carolyn also ended up single in her later years, following what she finally realized was in her own words “twenty-three years in a loveless marriage” (to her third husband, she and I being each other’s second).
But my letter received no response. This was not like Carolyn; neither of us would ever simply ignore the other. Something was wrong. However, not knowing what the wrongness might be, I did not feel it to be my place to dig into the mystery.
What? You want to know what this has to do with Pam’s Alzheimer’s experience? Hey, hold your horses; we’ll get there sooner or later.
The Thank You card inside the yellow envelope read as follows:
Came across your letter to Carolyn as I was going through her drawer this a.m. She was diagnosed with inoperable ovarian cancer in November of 2012. It’s been a yo-yo for her. She has been through so much the last five years. Her cancer had progressed to the brain & is throughout her whole body. She has been in a nursing home here in ——- since March of this year after having radiation treatments in ———. It is a miracle that she is still with us.
She did fall out of bed last nite & is not doing very well at all today. I take one day at a time and spend as much time as I can with her. She is content as long as she has her remote & TV. Thought you should know, —-.
Only thing I found to write to you was a “Thank You” card.
The news hit me hard. It hit Pam harder. We both agreed that if Amy’s visit here at the Border Fort ended up being long enough, if she could be persuaded to stay at least a few days, I was outa here, heading for ——- in the Subaru Outback. There are 1,300 miles between us and Carolyn. I could make that round trip in three days and still have a few hours with Carolyn.
Evening came. I did the usual chores, lay down to take a nap, and eventually Pam called her daughter to find out where she was on the highway and how long she could stay when she got here.
Oops. It turns out Amy’s not coming at all. What she had been trying to tell Pam was that a special wedding photo album (of Amy’s son’s wedding) was on its way. Amy will not be showing up by the 21st; album should be showing up at the Post Office by the 21st.
Once Amy understood how Pam’s wishful believing had convinced her Amy’s presence was imminent, Amy told her, “Boy, Mom, you really do have Alzheimer’s!”
And yet the first thing Pam told me after finding this out was, “You can take off after you’ve gotten enough sleep to be safe.”
“No,” I shook my head, “I’m not going. Remember, we found out last year about this time that we could never leave you alone for three days again. I was gone to Los Angeles for three and a half days, and by the time I got back, you were in the next thing to a coma. Zach was checking in with you regularly. It wasn’t enough. And you were still starting generators then!”
“Oh. Yeah. Guess you’re right.” She began to cry, in agony at the thought Carolyn would not be seeing me before she passed after all.
“Must be the way it’s supposed to be, honey. Maybe Carolyn would rather I didn’t see her like this, anyway.”
“Probably not,” she agreed, drying her eyes. “She and I are a lot alike; I know I’d be thinking that way.”
So I wrote —- a hand written letter this evening. It will go out in tomorrow’s mail. The text reads as follows:
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for letting me know about Carolyn. This cannot possibly be easy on you, either. Pam (my wife) also appreciates the updates; she has loved Carolyn from the first time they spoke to each other on the phone years ago.
I would have typed this, but my printer is skipping lines again.
If I dared leave Pam alone (which of course I do not), I’d already be on the road to ——- with Pam’s blessing. But perhaps it’s just as well I’m anchored here. Carolyn may prefer that I remember her as I last saw her when I was driving long haul trucks and she visited me at the truck stop at Post Falls, Idaho, with her two tiny dogs on leashes, both pups wearing harnesses with pretty little lights that flashed in the night.