Alzheimer's Daughter

The Story

Alzheimer’s Daughter introduces the reader to my healthy parents, Ed and Ibby, years before their diagnosis, then recounts painful details as our roles reversed and I became my parents’ parent.

Their disease started as translucent, confused thoughts and ended in a locked memory care unit after a near decade of descent into the opaque world of Alzheimer's.

I began writing Alzheimer’s Daughter one week after my mother's death––when I was stunned, realizing Dad had no memory of her or their 66-year marriage.

I write to pay tribute to the undying spirit at Ed and Ibby's core, and with the hope that the story of their parallel decline might be helpful to others.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


On Thanksgiving Day, I remember, with gratitude, the way I was raised by Ed and Ibby.

Excerpt from Chapter Two of ALZHEIMER'S DAUGHTER:

Each night at bedtime Mom would tuck me in, hold my hand and kneel beside my bed to pray for family, friends, and the state of our nation. We’d say things like, “God, please cure Aunt Jenny’s pneumonia, heal Mr. Smith from his heart attack, and guide Khrushchev.” I didn’t know who Khrushchev was, nor comprehend much about the Cold War, but I knew the U.S. was at odds with the Soviet Union.
 Without fail, hours after Mom prayed with me, I’d hear my parents kneeling––Mom on her side of the bed, and Dad on his––murmuring prayers to thank God for their blessings.

Growing up in the old house, I’d hear groaning and clanging from the furnace, imagining a monster lurking in the shallow, mousey basement. That contraption heated the whole house through a three-by-five foot register in the dining room floor, next to the staircase Mom grumbled about dusting while she put Dad’s old socks on both hands, running them up and down the spindles. On cold mornings I’d scoot down the stairs on my rump, and sit on the warm register, letting heat ooze into my goose-pimply skin, calming my chattering teeth until the metal became so hot I had to move or burn my backside.
Mom’s voice roused me from my warm trances as she hollered, “Jean, get moving, we’ve got to go through your flash cards before you leave for school.”
As Dad knotted his necktie, and Mom straightened it, she’d ask him, “What do you want for dinner tonight?”
He’d kiss her goodbye then chuckle, “Whatever you can spare.”
Then he opened the oak front door with the oval glass, a cold draft sneaking in, before it creaked closed behind him. Eating my breakfast of Alpha Bits, my knees curled underneath me at the kitchen table, I’d hear Mom murmur, “Your dad wouldn’t complain if I served him mud.” I’d watch out the window as my father with his long, quick strides began the quarter-mile walk to work.
I never remember Dad driving to work, even in the dead of winter, because we lived so close. Our used brown 1950s Ford Fairlane rarely left the detached garage, because we rarely left town. In those days, Dad never would have bought a new car. He said, “A car takes us from point A to point B. We need nothing fancy.”
After Dad, Ann, and I vacated the house, Ibby’s focus became a meat and potatoes evening meal. Most nights we even had homemade dessert contributing to her plumpness. Her teeth suffered from her stash of Milky Ways, Snickers, and Three Musketeers. When she was in her early forties she decided she wanted straight teeth and a pretty smile. So the dentist pulled her upper and lower molars, gave the sore gums a couple of days to begin to heal, then pulled the remaining front teeth, socking the dentures into her raw mouth. To work through the throbbing, she’d walk to the mirror and smile brightly. The image of her straight white teeth beaming back––her only anesthetic.
Between meal prep, Ibby washed clothes in the wringer washer. Wearing housedresses belted with a fitted bodice––June Cleaver-like, without the pearls––she carried laundry to a sagging clothesline. Dad’s pants and shirts, our skirts, blouses, sheets, and underwear along with Mom’s bras fluttered in June, and flapped so hard some came loose––landing in the neighbor’s yard––in the angry gray freeze of February.
Rivertown from 1950 to1960 likened to “Mayberry.” Opie––in his striped tee shirts, jeans, and shorn hair could have been one of my classmates. My most vivid school memory is of Friday, the 22nd of November in 1963. My third grade classmates and I covered our heads with our lunch boxes and ran for our lives, risking glances at the sky––hearts pounding, bobby socks and Mary Janes flying––searching for imagined Soviet planes, which we feared could bomb us. That night Mom, Dad, Ann and I huddled around the black and white Philco, as Walter Cronkite told the nation John F. Kennedy had not only been shot, but was dead. Tears seeped down our cheeks as Jackie Kennedy, in her blood stained dress, having removed her pillbox hat, stood beside Lyndon Johnson as he was sworn in.
Most days after school, kids chased each other, running through connecting backyards––playing good guys against bad guys––never knowing in whose yard we’d end up. Ibby, even though she was fiercely overprotective, never worried. She knew I’d be back to eat supper. We listened for our moms to holler “Dinnertime!” almost yodel-like. Understanding when first and middle names––‘Jean Louise’––were yelled we’d better run home fast because dinner was getting cold.
The only exception to our heavy meals occurred at end-of-summer harvest. Dad, because he was so practical, planted the vegetable garden in the spring. Mom, wearing her seersucker pedal-pusher pants, picked and prepared the vegetables, but allowed herself the beauty of her flower garden. It was not as practical as Ed’s garden. It didn’t produce food, but did give her joy––often a single rose in a bud vase decorated our diner table.
My mouth waters, and I can almost feel the sticky sweat on my neck remembering the steamy heat of the old house, with the ever so slight movement of air through the white, Priscilla curtains as we’d begin supper by spreading a thick coating of butter on a piece of Wonder bread, then rub the buttered bread on to an ear of sweet corn. After gnawing the rows off the cob, and licking the butter off my hands, the piece of warm bread was a bonus. The year I had a gaping hole in my mouth from having lost all four of my front teeth––top and bottom––mom took pity on me and cut the kernels off the cob. Harvest meals were rounded out with peppered green beans seasoned with bacon drippings saved from Dad’s breakfasts of bacon and eggs, and tomatoes––still warm from the garden––topping cottage cheese sprinkled with sugar.
A slatted swing suspended by two chains from the ceiling of the wrap-around front porch was the only place to catch a breeze on still summer days. I’d swing my baby dolls, while my sister and her teenage girlfriends, holding their transistor radios to their ears, practiced dancing to Wah-Watusi and Twist and Shout from the previous week’s American Bandstand.
 Memories jerk through my mind, like the clicking sound of reel-to-reel movies, of sitting Indian-style on the warm sidewalk, cranking my skate key to clamp my roller-skates to my saddle shoes. The bottoms of my feet vibrated, and the skate key lobbed from a leather string around my neck as I raced to the store––navigating uneven slabs of sidewalk pushed out of place from ancient maple and oak tree roots––to spend my allowance of a nickel on creamy Fudgesicles or maple-filled Bun candies.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

November Memories from 2006

November is Alzheimer's Awareness Month. Today, I reflect on a mid November day six years ago––the final day that my parents made their own decisions about their own lives.

Alzheimer's Daughter  Chapter One––Ordinary, Extraordinary Day

A nippy dawn woke eighty-six-year-old Ed, my father, on November 14, 2006. He turned to nuzzle his chin into Mom’s warm neck, but Ibby was already up and dressed. He heard her rattling around the kitchen laying out a breakfast of graham crackers and hot tea at the century-old dining table. Ed pulled on yesterday’s clothes that laid on the bedside chair overnight, splashed water on his face, and ran a dry toothbrush across his teeth.
After they ate, Ibby brushed crumbs from Ed’s lips, and held his red jacket from behind as he slowly slipped in one arm at a time. Ed helped Ibby snuggle into the blue, fuzzy cardigan she’d knitted thirty years ago, waiting as she fastened each white pearl button with her arthritic fingers.
Ed smooched Ibby saying, “I love you––see you for lunch.”
Fingertips against the wall to steady himself, he staggered down two cement steps to the attached garage, then pushed the control to open the overhead door. Ibby tottered along to his red Cadillac handing him his cane, reminding, “Don’t forget to use this.”
Ibby stood in the driveway of the small 1950’s brick, ranch home where they’d lived for forty years, waving while Ed backed out of the driveway without looking, and drove two blocks to work. His Caddy rolled through one stop sign, then through a red light before he parked crooked across two spaces. Ed entered his business of sixty years, smiling so brightly his eyes squinted, gave an enthusiastic, salute-like wave to his co-workers who were already busily working, bubbling, “Hello, everybody. Great day, isn’t it?” He continued polite niceties, but couldn’t remember names. Then he entered his office and settled in behind his walnut desk, opening The Wall Street Journal. He appeared to be busy, but glanced up frequently hoping to see familiar customers.
Back at home Ibby waved to her neighbors as they drove to work. Everyone knew everyone on Orchard Lane, their dead-end street. She struggled straightening her stooped spine to pour cracked corn and sunflower seeds into her bird feeder, and slowly hobbled to survey her bleak fall yard. She lingered, marveling at the glistening, frozen-dew encapsulating late-fall rosebuds. Frost soaked Ibby’s cloth shoes.
Shivers hastened her back into the warm house. She passed through the cluttered kitchen looking for a snack, peeking in the refrigerator packed with leftovers. Some were edible, others spoiled––but Ibby couldn’t tell the difference.