Having a spouse, sibling, or parent with Alzheimer’s affects a family in every way possible—and can leave people feeling like they have nowhere to turn. The moving stories in this new collection help readers recognize they are not alone—and provide comfort for those who need it now more than ever. Readers will be inspired by the husbands, wives, sons, and daughters who put their own needs aside and sacrifice everything for love. This story collection shows how compassion and loyalty prevails when a loved one has Alzheimer’s.
JM gives an overview of the book:
Dad sponged down the rails, slats, and sides of the bed, carefully put them together, and tightened the nuts and bolts. He made sure the sides locked and secure so she wouldn’t fall out. He wiped the plastic-covered mattress with soapy water and placed it on the springs then smoothed the sheets into place. Flower-printed cases enclosed the plastic-covered pillows. Everything was ready. Great Aunt Ann would be comfortably safe
In the two years since we saw her at her sister’s funeral, Ann had changed. She was no longer the elegant, six-foot-two Amazon full of energy and drive, deep hazel eyes sparkling with wit and intelligence. We barely knew her when she opened the door.
Greasy hair lay in disordered tangles on her shoulders; her mouth was crusted with glazed sugar icing from the crullers she crammed into her mouth with dirty fingers. The once solid, capable, neatly manicured hands, now knotted with arthritis, the nails chipped and broken, unraveled the loose cashmere threads of a stained cardigan. Her rumpled satin dress smelled of rooms shut away from sun and air for too long. The ripped, ragged hem of French lace straggled over bony knees protruding from wrinkled folds of once full flesh.
Gone was the woman of fashion and intelligence who had turned her personal style into a prosperous chain of beauty salons and who had glided effortlessly and gracefully through the world. Despite her unfashionably ample proportions, with her impeccable taste and sparkling smile, she had always looked like she belonged on the cover of a fashion magazine or at the head of an elegant banquet table where she had overseen each tiny detail. Only a bedraggled shadow of her former self remained. Her family dead and gone and her businesses closed, she was living alone in a dark, musty cave of faded elegance. We took her home with us and fit her into our lives. The house was full with my three young boys and me, Mom, Dad, and Tracy still living at home but we were family.
Ann’s rich contralto voice with its strength and cultured tones became a querulous nasal whine whenever she wanted something, especially the glazed crullers she preferred over home-cooked food. She wouldn’t eat anything else unless Dad gave it to her; she would mumble, grumble, and angrily shake her head whenever anyone else offered her food. Even though he was only her nephew by marriage, his presence calmed her. She trusted him as though he were her father.
Glimmers of the past surfaced like bright, fragile bubbles during the year before Alzheimer’s made her too weak and fragile to get out of the bed. Ann’s voice gained strength and sureness as she talked of her life and she seemed to grow younger and younger as she lived her life in reverse. Her eyes, once so wise and intelligent, became more innocent and trusting, empty of cynicism and worldliness as she became a trusting child once again. Photographs and pictures in family albums and books from her library touched some part of her mind hidden in dusty, forgotten corners, and the indulgent smile that had so disarmed and enchanted everyone around her bloomed again. Bony fingers traced perfect, even stitches on embroidered handkerchiefs as though sewing them for the first time. Her movements swift and sure, she would explain the choice of colors and stitches until her eyes dimmed and her hands restlessly plucked at her clothes, lost in a misty fog where the sun didn’t reach. A black mink hat with ostrich feathers that curved gracefully down like an exotic veil transported her to the streets of Paris and a tiny bistro where she ate fragrant onion soup thick with crusty bread and cheese and sipped a glass of wine. She was there, and then suddenly she was back. Ann, always larger than life, became less imposing.
Slowly, the wise, knowing light flickered and died, leaving innocence and an artless and open smile. Wisdom gained through decades of work and hard-earned success slowly faltered, fractured, and broke. The layers of her life peeled away until the hard-wired experiences of youth and childhood—lullabies, friendships, nursery rhymes, and quicksilver bursts of laughter—were unearthed and laid bare.
We shared her memories and learned who she was and who she had been. The opening of her first beauty shop, falling in love, and the little moments of her life surprised and delighted. The confident and self-assured girl she had been whispered secrets once safely locked away or forgotten. We were with her when she left the small farm where she was born. Her senior dance came alive and faded quickly under a moonlit sky where she got her first kiss. We relived her first crush and her first hat, her first pair of gloves on an Easter morning when she was five.
Toys appeared from some cobwebbed corner in the attic of her mind alongside crushes on Saturday matinee idols, Christmas trees, Easter bonnets, and white patent leather shoes. Thanksgiving turkeys were fed, killed, cooked, and eaten. We gathered eggs warm from the nest, carried shiny pails of frothy milk, and ate freshly churned butter. Time flashed backward faster and faster until only glimmers of awareness and the sweet, trusting smile of a child remained.
When her body grew feeble, the side rails on her bed stayed up to keep her safe. Her laughter chimed like a silver bell when she saw Dad. When he fed and changed her, she smiled up at him with complete trust. When she no longer recognized Dad’s face, she instinctively turned toward the sound of his voice and the touch of his hands like a newborn baby.
Then came the day when Ann became too ill to keep at home, her once strong and sturdy body emaciated and shrunken, her smile and mind gone. She no longer needed the bed in the family room.
Dad dipped the sponge into the soapy bleach water and wiped down the plastic-covered mattress one last time. Carefully taking apart the bed, he washed the railed sides before placing them against the wall. He gathered the parts and carted them into the garage, where he stacked them in the storage area and then went quietly back into the house.
There was more space in the family room with the bed gone, and the room, once filled with the shared memories of a lifetime, echoed with empty silence.
When Ann came to live with us, we got to know her in a way few ever would. She took us on a journey through her life and showed us the sadness and the joy, the trials and the excitement that led her to the fancy house with expensive furnishings and the closets full of couture clothes, hats, gloves and accessories. The once formidable Amazon of fashion was a country girl who delighted in beauty and made it her life.
Most of all, she taught us patience and that in even the most devastating circumstances there is the joy. Had we not tucked her into our lives, we never would have known our great aunt and the world she lived in or experienced the wonder of childhood once again.
I've seen several friends deal with the devastation of Alzheimer's in their family and I've been through it too many times with older members of my family. Aunt Ann, who had been a force of nature, was my first experience and I shared a glimpse of her dreams as her memories disappeared one by one under the weight of aluminum fibers collecting in her brain. The stories she told and the joys she shared remain with me and are part of "Bedside Stories."
The title that ended up in the book isn't the one I chose; that was simply "The Bed" and it was meant to be a reversal of the anticipation of a new baby as the disease is a reversal of memory, progressing from everything learned to the hard-wired memories first laid down in a child's mind.
Although chronologically middle-aged, I still feel like a youth except on those mornings when time, temperature and joints more used to sitting and typing than running, walking or just moving remind me I have been around a while; then I'm about 432.
At the foot...