So That One Day, My Kids Can Make Fun Of Me

Fuck should be a regular word, I think. It’s not that bad. You know what I mean? It’s bitch that’s a real bad word. Or son of a bitch. If you called my brother Joe a son of a bitch, he’d beat the shit out of you. He didn’t like people talking about his mother.” 

This was my Uncle Al, with whom I was talking on the phone after a long period of no contact. I wrote about Uncle Al a while back in an essay called A Brother Thing, which was later published as part of the excellent anthology Here in the Middle. In that essay, I remarked that Uncle Al was easily as healthy as me. It’s been a couple of years, since then. Nothing stays the same. 

I’d called Uncle Al because he’d declined to have me come and visit him in person. He didn’t want any visitors, he said. He also wasn’t doing any visiting of his own, and so he and my dad hadn’t seen each other for many months. What a good idea, I thought, to call him from Dad’s room! 

Which really just goes to show you that my hope and optimism truly know no bounds. 

Uncle Al, Mom, Dad, Aunt Jeannie.

The dad in question was lounging in his bed, the back part up so he could take in a television show starring Andy Griffith and one of my favorites, Don Knotts. “Hold on,” I said to Uncle Al. “I’ll give him the phone.” 

See? Optimism again. I learned pretty quickly that my father is no longer familiar with the concept of “phone.” Let’s not even talk about the concept of “Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus.” 

“What is it?” he said to me, glancing at the phone and then handing it back politely. 

“It’s your brother,” I told him. “Albert. He’s on the phone… he wants to talk to you.” 

I held the phone up to his ear. He tried to take it from me. I held it firmly and pushed his hand away. I could hear Uncle Al on the other end of the line. “Ej!” he said. “It’s me, Albert . . . how you doing?” 

Dad said, “Yeah!” and then turned to look at the thing I had pressed to the side of his head. Uncle Al continued talking. Dad responded minimally and mostly in ways that didn’t make sense. At one point he reached out to touch my stomach, as if to see what it was made of. Cookies, I could have told him.  

Instead I backed away, leaning so I could still hold the phone to his ear. He kept trying to take it. Within approximately a minute and a half I knew we had to wrap it up. “It’s me again,” I told Uncle Al. “He’s not … uh … he’s not doing it right.” 

We continued talking for a while, because as we all know, life must go on even when it is too stupid for words. Uncle Al told me how if it gets too bad and none of his kids can bring themselves to do it, then he will pull his own plug. I said, “But if you need a plug to keep you alive, I don’t think you’ll be in any shape to get to it. You know. To pull it. On your own.” 

Wow! So helpful! And comforting, I mean, really. I should be allowed to communicate via writing only. No speaking permitted. But no one ever stops me. 

“I’ll find a way,” Uncle Al said. “I’ll show them.” 

I looked at my dad, who was back to his TV show but glancing my way anytime I laughed, which was fairly frequent. That’s Uncle Albert for you. I knew that if my dad had not got the goddamned Alzheimer’s, he’d be visiting his brother every day whether Albert liked it or not. Maybe they’d talk about the women they used to “chase,” or that time their brother Joe dangled their brother Ben out a third story window. Maybe they’d recollect the guys Joe beat up for calling him a son of a bitch. In any event, they’d laugh.They might be old and getting older, but they’d surely, most certainly, have a laugh. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I really, really hope my own kids are the best of friends when they’re in their eighties. At least close acquaintances. Siblings, having shared so much of life, have the ability to reminisce in a way very few other relationships get to enjoy. Many siblings don’t take advantage of this. I say, if you can, you totally should. 

I need Alzheimer’s to be gone within the next half century or so, because I want my kids to be able to do this. I hope they look back on “that time Mom crashed into the guard rail” and “that time Mom crashed into the other guard rail, or wait, maybe that was a telephone pole.” I want them to chuckle over how upset their dad used to get over mere cosmetic damages. I hope they will laugh about every fight they ever had, and wonder how their mother ever managed to remain so goddamned cheerful. Speaking of curse words, I want them to use them correctly when they reminisce, as in, “Daddy was grumpy as shit, wasn’t he?” 

I want them to remember, is I guess what I am trying to say. 

My family is participating in the Pittsburgh Walk to End Alzheimer’s this November. We have fifty years to get it done with. If you’d like to make a contribution – or to join our team – you can do so here. 


Alzheimer’s. Enough Already.

Several months ago, my dad’s nursing home roommate died. No one called to tell me. Well, they called, but only to let me know my dad would be getting a new roommate. 

“That’s fine,” I said. “But, why’s he getting someone new? What happened to Mr. Grant?” 

“Oh…well. Sadly, he passed away a few days ago.” 

“My God,” I said. “I just saw him!” You know. As if that mattered. 

I hung up the phone and thought about this, because I am nothing if not an over-thinker. What if I hadn’t asked? Weren’t they going to tell me? Didn’t I deserve to know? 

I didn’t know Mr. Grant, of course. In general, it’s very hard to know a person once they’ve reached the stage where they need full-time dementia care. But I said hello to him all the time and he occasionally said it back. I listened when he muttered to himself about someone who was “always too busy” and “why don’t I just dig my own grave.” I did not share my dad’s cookies with him, because he was diabetic and wasn’t supposed to have them. I suspect he helped himself to them anyway after I’d gone. It’s possible that I had a hand in killing him, by bringing the cookies in the first place. I choose not to dwell on that.  

These days, every time I go to the nursing home, I take a mental roll call. There’s Bert, who sits by the window and never fails to ask whether my kids are playing baseball today. There’s Grace, who always wears a winter coat and only wants grilled cheese for lunch. Over there is Richard, who thinks he’s married to Margaret except when his real wife is there, then he’s married to her. And here comes Annemarie, who is one of my favorites. Recently a guy was shaking the back of my dad’s chair for no apparent reason, and Annemarie walked over and stood in front of my dad, leaning so she was right in the guy’s face. “If you don’t leave him alone,” she said to the guy, “I will knock you on your ass.” Annemarie is about 84. The guy, either chastised or frightened, walked away. 

Days go by where I don’t see one of them, Annemarie or any of the others, and I start to worry but I feel weird asking. Like maybe HIPAA prevents me from inquiring as to whether a person is still alive. I don’t know. Now that I think of it, I haven’t seen Stevie and his Scooby-Doo doll in a while, nor have I seen Mr. Gordon, who says hilarious things and then turns around and threatens someone’s life and/or limbs. Once, I got there and the person I couldn’t find was my dad, but then I located him riding an exercise bike in the physical therapy room, because he is like Michael Myers and really cannot be killed. It is unsettling to say the least. 

There are new people coming on the floor all the time – honestly, it gets to where a person can’t keep up. I did make friends with a woman named Elizabeth, who has very nice hair and who told me about the time Mario Lemieux visited the nursing home. Which never happened. There’s another lady who throws entire drinks on nurses and aides and then screams at them to bring her another. “I said, bring me more water, bitch!” Her words, not mine. You can’t help but think she was always like this, that she beat her children with wire hangers and threw skillets at her husband when he dared stop off for a drink after work. But the fact is, you have no idea. She may have been the brown-sugar-scented grandma of your dreams. This is dementia. 

It’s Annemarie who I wonder about the most. She’s a busybody and a flirt, and she’s not afraid of anyone (hence the “I will knock you on your ass”). She tells me often that I don’t need to worry, that she takes care of my dad when I’m not around. “I love him,” she said. When I expressed my appreciation for this, she followed it up with, “Listen. What I am saying to you is that I am in love with him.” She also told me once that she’s 94 years old (she isn’t) and that her mother, still alive, is 130. “People can’t believe it,” she told me. “I’ll bet,” I said. 

I can’t imagine that Annemarie could die – die! – and I would never know it.  

That’s it. I’ve made up my mind. Next time I go there I’m going to ask, at least about Stevie for sure. Stevie once told me that when he was young he’d been hit by a train in Oakmont, but he didn’t sue anyone because he’d been running numbers at the time and worried about getting in trouble. It had the ring of truth and so I believed him, even though I’ve watched him “feed” Scooby-Doo with my own eyes.

Last but not least, there’s Ellen. She doesn’t say much. She’s small and resembles my mother a bit, and once my dad said she was his girlfriend. I think he’s since forgotten the relationship and I’m pretty sure she never knew about it in the first place. Her husband was with her one day, and he told me they’d been married for 58 years. Ellen’s face lit up at this.

“We’re married?” she said, awestruck.

“We are,” said her husband. “You’re my wife.”

“Oh!” I’d never seen Ellen smile before, now I didn’t think she’d ever stop. “Well,” she said, “it’s so nice of you to come and visit me.”

My family and I will participate again this year in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. You can join our team or make a donation here. We probably won’t cure Stevie or Annemarie or the water-throwing lady or my dad. All the same, I’m pretty sure future generations will thank us if we can put this nonsense behind us once and for all.