To sow the seeds of charity, doubt and penitance, it's getting so
all a charitable organization has to do nowadays is send some nice
greeting cards or return-address labels. You read the thoughtfully-worded
appeals, and you think, there must be just a little more that I can
do. You know, the "gifts" are always ours to keep, and didn't
you always hate to throw out something so "nice"?
When these folks called the Alzheimer's Association sent me some museum
art greeting cards, what would you have done? I don't think either
of us ever really admired Van Gogh -- deeply troubled disturbances
boil out of most of his work. But what about the colorful Monet? You'd
especially like the Charles Neal "June Morning" border composition.
His floral blues, greens, aquas and reds fairly leap out of the printer's
ink, a vivid and harmonious depth perception with all of the symmetry
and proportion that you studied and loved so much.
Something that gives that much pleasure deserves recognition in return,
doesn't it? Oh, no, I would never dare to just throw those out. You
trained me well. Those joined the "keep" pile of other worthy
solicitations: just $10, $25, $50 or $100 could help make someone very
happy. Ever the skeptic, you would ask, but how do we know that?
We don't know them, but they could do good works.
You never had a "position" on charity. You never told us
to take care of the less fortunate. But you had a soft spot. You were
there for people in need of a caring human, as often as the full-time
job of raising a family would permit. You never told us to take care
of "you and yours" first, but you'll have to admit your sense
of priorities was pretty strict, and always provident for the future.
So when these cards arrived, my first reaction was, "well, now,
aren't these people just a little late?" You're gone now.
Has it really been a year and a half? My first selfish thought was,
how much more might you have enjoyed these cards, than those florid,
floral English window boxes I was able to find to send off to you?
What struck me mostly was all the memories that came, unsolicited,
along with the cards.
Say, now, do you suppose they might have gotten my name from the convalescent
center? Could they be exploiting the mixed memories and pain of all
of the next of kin?
You would probably say that was a wretched thing for them to do. We
would have examined the card artwork, and the fund appeal, and concluded
that the card stock was really quite chintzy, so that you couldn't
really send these things. And then we would have laughed at ourselves
for being so awful about it.
But, you know, they're right, there are still a lot of other folks
out there who need assurance they're not alone.
You'd be right, we don't know if that Association is really qualified
to provide that help. We'll wait and see. Yeah, Mum, I am giving to
other causes already. Let's not get into that right now.
You never remembered to say whether you liked the cards and notes
and recollections and photos that I did send back to you. I don't mind,
because I know your friends there always did read them to you. I would
know you well enough to predict, you would have enjoyed mine even more
than the Charles Neal, because somebody obviously put many of mine
together by hand.
You always knew the names of your children up until the final week.
We never talked about your Alzheimer's, either. One of the symptoms
is that you can't really converse about them. The "Someone to
Stand For You" folks included a list of "10 Warning Signs" of
Alzheimer's. I'm not going to go back over it here.
They aren't just warning signs. They're a clinical description of
a daily ritual of life and decline. No one has ever come back from
Alzheimer's (so far) to tell us whether there are better or worse ways
to spend your last years.
But I didn't want to talk about that just now. We've been there, Dearie,
we've been there.
Life isn't about trying to recapture what we once had and can never
have again. It's about sharing and enjoying what we have now. Whether
that be more, or less, we should try to do as best as we can with what
we do have. In that sense, as frustrating as it can be for the one
with Alzheimer's, Alzheimer's really is terrible on the rest of the
family. They're the ones still having the biggest problem letting go
of that which they can't control.
I don't want to talk about what's hardest to give up. I want to talk
about what's worth holding on to.
If you don't mind, what I would want to say to others is that, inside
of the "10 Warning Signs", if you become afflicted, you are
still always you.
You might not remember the last time we sat together in the garden,
but I do. The inner court lawn at the convalescent center had widely
spaced benches, to give relatives and residents some sense of privacy.
We had the whole vast expanse of lawn to ourselves.
Geraniums and azaleas lined the surrounding walkways. I always liked
the azaleas, and their growth habit and intricate symmetrical structure
always interested me. But azaleas are really brittle, fussy, fragile
plants requiring exacting growing conditions to give forth bloom and
You were always partial to the ever so commonplace geraniums. I think
you took to them because you could put them anywhere and they'd always
thrive, always offering anybody who took the trouble to see, a vivid
bright spot of cheerful color.
You always responded positively to color. Maybe it was your art training,
or maybe you loved art because it offered you so much symmetry and
color. These Virginia geraniums were quite colorful, evocative of those
we had in the back yard in Oakland of the '50's, and I noted you didn't
react to them until I pointed them out.
But I was the one making the comparisons. The Virginia spring morning
air was cool and invigorating. The lawn was picture-book green, still
damp with beads of a morning dew. This was the kind of morning that
reminds us all that the Earth really is a wonderful, invigorating place
to live. We didn't say much for a while.
I had a lot on my mind just then. Overriding all of that, at just
that moment, was this other thought: here we are now, sitting in a
garden together after all these years. And we saw, I think, through
all of those other things, those circumstances and situations, to something
closer: ourselves. Not everything had changed, after all. And it was
I hope it was enough for you, too. It was all we could have asked
for. Far too few moments like this get shared in a lifetime. You said
that it was nice here, and I could tell that "it's nice here" stood
for a lot of things we didn't have to try to articulate, because I
could tell that we had found peace here, in this garden.
We had a smoke ("how delightfully naughty!") before you
caught a chill, and then we decided we ought to go in together.
If you don't mind, there is something else I wanted to say to others
who might be going through this together now. Of all of the possible
things I could have in mind, I wanted to bring you back to Yosemite
in, oh, the Fall season of '73 or '74.
We had driven up to Yosemite from Oakland, on a whim, in my spiffy
new little four seater. You had packed our picnic lunch. It wasn't
until I set the parking brake in Tuolumne Meadows that I finally admitted
I'd been so quiet because I was sporting a simply dreadful hangover.
You always hated mountain driving, so I was made exalted in becoming
the double hero, the skillful mountain driver in dire pain. And we
laughed at my foolishness, and you thought me so courageous, even though
I told you I love the mountain curves.
We pulled over in a shaded spot at the edge of a clearing, and the
picnic lunch made up for everything.
You came up with a wicker picnic basket from someplace. I never did
figure out how you always managed finishing touches like that. You
packed along your wonderful complement of Camemberts and Bries and
Goudas and crackers of every conceivable kind. A moderate amount of
grey reisling went along perfectly with such luxuries. Even the hangover
The world was really a wonderful place to live in those days, too.
We looked at some pea-shaped boulders, the size of my small car, resting
on an acre-sized inclined plane, a single glaciated slab of exfoliated
granite. I would always marvel at how they came to repose on such a
sheer face. You would always seek out the tiniest plants eking out
a survival in the cracks and corners of a much bigger and harder world.
You had a soft spot for them, you know.
On the drive back down highway 120, you startled me badly by shrieking, "Stop!
Stop! Stop! Look! Look! Look!"
I pulled off onto the gravel shoulder as quickly as I could, unsure
whether I would need some kind of weapon, or a camera. You were beside
yourself and could not quite say what had possessed you. But you kept
pointing and screeching with joy, dragging me by the hand like your
child of so many years ago.
And then I saw it too.
The sun was low in a clear western sky. It was fall, so the aspens
were beginning to turn. Within a canopy underside of taller and shaded
green, thousands of uniformly golden aspen leaves danced in unison,
with the breeze, illuminated as if from within by a bath of intense
sunshine. A fluttering cloud of brightly fluorescing golden-orange
waved solemnly at us, cloaked in a waving cathedral arch of dark greens
It was an intense experience. You grabbed my hand. We witnessed it
together. I got some photos, before the sun ebbed on and the spectacle
faded back into the subdued forestation of the Yosemite low country.
Whatever we had seen, others, not knowing quite what to see, might
only have seen just trees. I never saw anything quite like that before
or again. It was truly a sight made just for that moment, just for
The photos were good. Some day I will unlock them from the color slides
so they can be shared, but the real event is locked up in the memories
of what we saw, experienced and shared together for those fleeting
hours, on that day, in Yosemite.
You always saw the color, the detail, the richness of texture nobody
else was interested in noticing. You were that way about life in general,
not just the color spots which nature plants for the benefit of those
who know how to look.
To me, that day symbolized a discovery process we had built and shared
together. There were many other days like that too, in which we shared
the discovery of new things, great and small, that we had not seen
or understood before. And I want thank you in particular for those,
If a lot of other things had changed by Friday, April 21, 1995, by
that day we sat together in the garden at the convalescent center in
Virginia, the quintessential "you" was not one of those things
that had changed.
What I wanted to share, with others, is that it keeps coming back
to this: you were still you. I wanted you to know I always understood
that. Of course I still miss you more than I can ever say, but, to
the others, I wanted to say, in sickness or in health, those moments
that we mentioned are the moments we really live for.
November 1913 - April 1997
© Alex Forbes, August
The Trudeau strip above
wraps up a wonderful story about another grand lady with Alzheimer's.
It is reprinted without permission, but is available for viewing
through the Doonesbury page. I feel indebted to Garry Trudeau for
creating this tender series on a very serious subject.
My own article "Dearest
Mum" points out in its own way that it isn't prudent to give
to charitable organizations you know little or nothing about. Nothing
in my article is meant to be construed as endorsement or criticism
of the Alzheimer's Association; we know nothing about them or what
they actually do.
I discovered a wealth
of resources on the world wide web. At the Alta Vista search engine
I got over 37,000 hits on the keyword "Alzheimers". I checked
Yahoo and got a more modest 200, on the first search.
I did spend some time
on one website, below. Because of my own limited knowledge, I can't
endorse any of the sites. From personal experience and the time spent
on their site, I can say that http://www.alzheimers.com/ (link
found broken July 2001) is very worthwhile reading, for anyone
struggling to come to grips with the reality of Alzheimer's.
If you're one of those
people, or have struggled with any kind of deep personal loss, it
was you for whom "Dearest Mum" was really written. Yes,
we really did call her "Mum", and, you know, I think she
really would have approved of this article.
But she would have found
some fault with it, or improvement needed, just like Trudeau's Lacey.
That's why they were such grand ladies.
Please see our Pans & Portraits page in PHOTO Notes
to view a screen-size picture of what Mum and I saw in Yosemite that
day. It doesn't do justice to the memory, for the memory is always
much more than of sunlit
aspens, but it
is a memorable photograph nonetheless.