I’m convinced there’s nothing crueler than losing one’s mind. Especially in the early stages, when you’re aware it’s happening.
Alzheimer’s had touched our lives with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It began with Lenny’s mom. Just prior to my fortieth birthday, she broke her hip. In her late seventies, she was put in the hospital for an extended stay. Weighing less than eighty pounds, she was far too frail to manage on her own. Her first night in the hospital, she spoke meekly, making no sense. We chalked it up to the anesthesia. The next evening she was bolder, again speaking mostly gibberish, uttering disconnected thoughts. We couldn’t follow her. She was frustrated and angry. We were worried sick.
By the third evening it’d progressed to almost violent agitation at our inability to understand her. Ellie’s doctor assured us it was “sundowning,” a common occurrence with the hospitalized elderly. Outside of their usual environs they become confused and disoriented as the sun sets. The sooner they return to their homes, the better.
That’s when we decided to bag my fortieth birthday party. It didn’t seem like a time to celebrate.
From the hospital, she moved to rehab. It was weeks before she came home. She was never the same.
Ellie had always repeated herself. Her world had gotten small since Samuel had left her. Nonetheless, he and Lenny remained the focus of her life. Any news regarding either of them filled her head and left little room for anything else.
It became increasingly concerning when she began asking the same questions immediately after receiving the answers. At first we mistook it for her not listening. It became apparent soon enough that although there was a time when that might have been the case, that was not the issue anymore. Ellie could no longer hold a thought for more than a moment or two.
It progressed to her wandering off and forgetting her way home. Neighbors and local security guards were finding her with increased frequency, blocks away, confused and aimless.
As with many seniors who live alone, TV was Ellie’s company. It was always on. In no time, she forgot how to work the remote control. Initially, she would call a few times a day. Within weeks, it was hourly, until it escalated to incessant. No sooner had we slowly and deliberately explained the procedure (through clenched teeth), than the phone would ring again––Ellie, with no remembrance of the prior call.
Patience was never my strong suit. If I’d had some recovery then, perhaps I could’ve done better. As it was, I was frustrated and awful. Since Lenny was working most of the day, the brunt of the calls fell to me. It was nearly impossible to do anything without constant interruption.
After a few months of living as tech support for Ellie, she had a stroke and needed care. A nurse was brought in to help with her immediate needs; she never left. Our burden was lifted, but for all intents and purposes, Lenny and Samuel lost Ellie forever.
Other than the Alzheimer’s, she was remarkably strong and healthy, despite weighing less than eighty pounds. Unable to move her legs and rarely leaving her bed, except for an occasional moment of clarity, she lived in a world we could not enter. It was heart wrenching.
Losing track of his keys, uncertain as to whether he had turned off the stove, repeating the same story, my dad was always absentminded. In recent years, he only ventured North once a year for Passover. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t been down to Florida since visiting him in the hospital years earlier. I used the kids as my excuse.
Even though I spoke to him on the phone daily, the change in him was subtle and hard to discern. Initially, I found myself answering the same question numerous times. Then there were increasing tales of missing things, getting lost and forgetting important occasions, like birthdays (even his own).
It didn’t become alarming until Jerry came for his yearly visit a few Passovers back. As was his custom, he misplaced things, blaming it on not being in his own home and not having room to properly unpack. The amount of time he spent searching is what became cause for concern. He’d go into his room to check a baseball score and would emerge an hour later in a sweat with a furrowed brow. When I’d ask what was wrong, he’d mumble that he couldn’t find his money, keys, yarmulke, whatever it was at that moment.
It was happening with increased frequency. Every couple of hours, he’d disappear, reappearing sometime later, agitated. Nobody thought much of it except me. Having been through it with Ellie, it was all too familiar.
I tried to bring the behavior to my Aunt Rose’s attention. She’d have none of it. In fact, she gave me a good what for for even suggesting such a thing.
The phone calls throughout the year became repetitive and frustrating. The following Passover, during his annual visit, I returned home with the kids to the smell of gas overwhelming the hallway. As I made my way down the corridor, I was filled with dread as I realized the odor was emanating from our apartment. Jerry had made himself a cup of tea and left the burner on. A breeze from the open window extinguished the flame, allowing the gas to leak for hours. Fortunately, he’d gone for a long walk, and no one on the fourth floor had lit a match.
Following that trip, he returned home and couldn’t find his keys. He searched everywhere he’d been, finally calling a locksmith. No sooner had the lock been replaced than Jerry found his lost keys in his pants. A few weeks later, he lost his checkbook. After turning his apartment upside down, he stayed up all night, showered at dawn and waited for the bank to open. He cancelled the missing checks. Days later, finding the lost checks, he wrote them out and subsequently bounced them all, forgetting he had cancelled them.
On the morning of my fiftieth birthday, all I could think about was Lenny’s unemployment and the fact that, for the second year in a row, Jerry had forgotten my birthday. Jerry forgot everything. Why did I take it so personally? Perhaps because my brother Jeff asked for my address on the big day so he could send a card, and Cookie gifted me with a piece of jewelry that I’d always hated, “from her collection.” She did make more than good, a couple of months later, treating me to a gorgeous pair of diamond earrings. But on that day, I sat atop my pity pot throne.
Lenny was kind enough to sleep in. I got to take Jack to Little League practice at 8:15 after spending the night before trying to restore all of our lost computer data, thanks to a crash caused by his magic magnet. That damn fucking magic.
Lenny bought a lovely birthday cake––only it was cookies and cream for the kids, and chocolate for Si. I preferred vanilla. Can you hear the frikkin’ violins?
The week in Vegas was somber. Lenny and I tried hard to have fun. We managed here and there. A few days shy of Halloween, one of the smaller hotels had set up a series of haunted houses in their parking lot. From the entrance, where a zombie collected the money, to the exit where a chainsaw wielding “Jason” chased us to our car, we screamed in horror and delight. For the most part, the wicked unknown and painful recent past overshadowed our attempts at fun. Every dollar we spent reminded us of our uncertain future. We talked about making love, but didn’t extend the effort––the chasm between us, ever widening.
Expectations are the building blocks of resentments. I know this. Yet, it’s never stopped me. Left wanting, I sabotage my happiness. Seems like every year for as long as I can remember, the shit hit the fan right before my birthday. This was a chart topper.
My last birthday party was for my twentieth, a surprise party I orchestrated myself. Pathetic. My twenty-fifth was overshadowed by my first wedding two weeks later. All well and good, it was the best party I’d ever been to (despite the fact that the marriage sucked and Frank and I split up the week after my thirtieth birthday).
I harangued Lenny into throwing me a fortieth birthday party. He made the calls and then, a week before the big day, Ellie fell and broke her hip. That ended that.
My forty-fifth came and went. Just before my forty-sixth there was 9/11 and then, a few weeks later, Lenny lost his job at Holloran Hour. Not much to celebrate that year. On my forty-seventh birthday Lenny was in LA and I was in New York. For my forty-eighth we were busy recovering from the recent demise of The Bill Plant Show, and my forty-ninth came and went when there was no news from Randa after Lenny’s first trial week.
There was always a compelling reason to put off celebrating, not spend money and feel really sorry for myself. Poor fucking me.
When we moved West, we met a fabulous couple who lived in our neck of the suburban woods. Like us, Kyle and Georgette were sober. Unlike us, they had been for almost half their lives. Fun and generous, they invited us for a welcome BBQ, kids and all, and gave us a tour of the neighborhood, with tips on the best shops and restaurants.
I initiated future social contact, something I rarely did. We went on a few double dates, always having lots of laughs and easy conversation. On one such evening, my fiftieth birthday came up.
“I was supposed to have a party in New York. Clearly that ain’t gonna happen.” Cue violins.
Georgette jumped in. “We’ll make you a fiftieth.”
“Get out. We just met.”
“Absolutely. Our pleasure.”
For the first time in my adult life, someone else took control. All I had to do was show up. What I usually did for others was now being done for me. Maybe fifty is the charm.
The party redeemed all. There was a houseful of friends, some of whom I’d gotten to know over the years while visiting Lenny, others I’d met since our move months earlier. I was overwhelmed by the affection my new friends showered on me, and the kindness of my hosts, who welcomed near strangers to their home on my behalf. As an added bonus, a close friend from New York happened to be in town for business. His presence at the party linked me to home.
The knot in my stomach was ever-present, but I felt loved and cared for. What greater gift than that?
Happy, Happy Birthday to me––or are you still busy feeling sorry for yourself, old hag?
Bestselling author, performer, producer, promoter, and talk show host, Vicki Abelson, thrice appeared on Saturday Night Live, co-starred in a pilot for Comedy Central, and optioned a music reality show to Telepictures. For the past nine + years, Vicki has been presenting the crème de la crème of the music and literary worlds at her celebrity-driven literary salon, Vicki Abelson's Women Who Write. Guests have included: Norman Lear, Cloris Leachman, Michael Imperioli, Jackie Collins, Kevin Pollak, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Marilu Henner, Paul Williams,Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz to name but a few. A featured contributor to The Huffington Post, The Fix, Reimagine, S-Curves, and Step 12 Magazine, Vicki leads workshops, does speaking engagements, and coaches privately, in the real and cyber worlds. Vicki can currently be seen in Henry Jaglom's, The M Word. Her first book, five-star Amazon Bestseller, Don’t Jump: Sex Drugs, Rock ’N Roll… And My Fucking Mother, published by Carl Reiner’s Random Content. Visit Vicki's website at www.vickiabelson.com.
Vicki Abelson Photo ©Carlos Alejandro Photography