A recent conversation with Atlanta writer Jason Mallory prompted me to reminisce about some of my favorite Sesame Street vignettes. I look with particular fondness upon “Ladybugs’ Picnic,” the animated celebration of the Number 12, because my father often shouted it throughout the house.
“OHHH, it’s the Ladybug Picnic!!!” he screamed, sort of getting the lyrics right.
For your reference, here is the video:
The other day I called Daddy to ask whether he remembered the song that once served as one of our family’s educational staples.
“Daddy, do you remember that song ‘Ladybugs’ Picnic’ you used to go around the house singing all the time?”
“What song?” he asked, requesting additional clarification.
“You know, ‘OHHH, it’s the Ladybug Picnic!!!’” I yelled, emulating his former enthusiasm.
“Yeah I know it. It’s the song you were just sangin’!”
“Right,” I emotionally retreated.
On Sunday Daddy, Mother, and her two brothers visited; while Mother and my uncles wandered around Ryan’s and my new house, Daddy sat on the sofa staring into space. His mental romp through Alzheimer’s La La Land continued at lunch at Grant Park restaurant Six Feet Under.
When the waitress took Mother’s order, Daddy quickly said, “I’ll have that, too.” He always requests the same dish as Mother since menus present overwhelming choices, and Alzheimer’s has annihilated his ability to make decisions, even something as simple as deciding what to eat.
While the rest of us caught up on family gossip, Daddy picked up and studied each condiment bottle over and over – perhaps a manifestation of anxiety over not being able to keep up with the conversation. Usually my attempts to include Daddy result in increased alienation, so I expect nothing more from him than quiet companionship.
Daddy’s and my comfort with total silence proved useful when we herded across the street like a bunch of hillbillies into Oakland Cemetery, an historic final resting place as well as a serene, multi-acre green space. Because I am wearing a leg brace and walking with crutches, I lay in the grass beside Daddy while the rest of my family traipsed through the cemetery’s many sections.
“There’s a lotta dead people in here,” Daddy commented.
“Yep,” I agreed.
At one point Daddy shuffled through a row of graves and froze, considering names and dates. The old Daddy would have had a wad of tobacco tucked into his cheeks.
An Oakland Cemetery volunteer greeted Daddy, and I rolled over in an attempt to eavesdrop and gauge what kind of believable show my father still manages to put on.
“There’s a lotta dead people in here,” I overheard him say.
After a brief exchange Daddy turned away from the man and gazed into nowhere.
A few weeks ago my family visited Timber in Augusta to celebrate a late Christmas, as Timber’s intense work schedule prevented holiday travel. Because my parents and I already had exchanged gifts, presents addressed to Timber scattered the living room floor. And even though Christmas had occurred weeks prior, Santa figurines, wintry garlands, and red ribbons remained arranged across Timber’s apartment.
“Robert, do you know what we’re celebrating?” Mother asked.
“Timber’s Berfday?” he asked.
“No, we’re doing a late Christmas,” Mother explained. “Timber’s Birthday is in September.”
“Oh,” he shrugged.
I understand Daddy’s befuddlement since a pile of presents surrounded Timber’s feet. Clearly his sense of time is totally warped, and decorative visual cues make no difference.
Later that evening we watched TV while lounging on the sofa. Suddenly the cushions shook and the room rumbled as though a train were rushing across nearby tracks.
“What was THAT?” I asked with alarm.
“Me pootin’,” Daddy said.
“Robert! Eww!” Mother screamed.
One afternoon we took the dogs for a walk at the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area. Because Daddy’s pace has become so slow, I dawdled along the path with him and his Scottish Terrier Winston, while Timber, Mother, and her West Highland Terrier Obi power walked ahead.
“Obi and Winston studied at Boston University,” Daddy randomly muttered.
“What?” I asked.
“The terrier is the Boston University mascot,” Daddy clarified. “That’s where Obi and Winston got their degrees.”
Daddy’s retention of historic facts paired with his inability to recall important current details is both frustrating and sad. Last week I had knee surgery to repair two meniscal tears, and will wear a brace and walk on crutches for six weeks. Mother stayed with us for a few nights and left Daddy with the dogs in Calhoun; instead of inquiring about my pain levels and recovery, Daddy fretted over when Mother would return.
“When’re you comin’ home?” he asked every time Mother called to check in.
Fortunately I have adjusted to Daddy’s apathy and pretend that an Alzheimer’s zombie has overtaken his body. Daddy’s behavior still dismays Mother on a regular basis, though, which I began to better understand during her Atlanta sojourn. Mother requested that several people check on Daddy throughout the day, that her brothers take him to dinner every night, and that her supportive friend Bobby drive Daddy to back-to-back appointments one afternoon. Mother left a note for Daddy reminding him of his teeth cleaning, but when the dental office called to confirm, Daddy claimed he had to cancel because of a conflicting appointment — confusedly referencing Mother’s note. When Mother found out Daddy missed his teeth cleaning, she cried out of aggravation.
“It would have been so nice to have that taken care of!” she stomped.
When Mother returned to Calhoun, she found bone-dry dog water bowls and the odor of doo doo carelessly swiped off linoleum with a paper towel. I’ve expressed my concern over Daddy’s ability to watch the dogs for years, and I hope Mother finally recognizes that boarding them during travel now is her only safe option.
Soon after Mother’s arrival home, she conked out on the couch. She always sleeps with Obi on the sofa or in my childhood bed in order to avoid Daddy’s snoring and nightly wandering.
Yesterday Mother woke up in my bed with Daddy creepily hovering over her. “Shirley Temple died,” he announced and shuffled off.
Most nights during one of his snack runs, Daddy wakes Mother up and asks, “When are you comin’ to bed with me?”
“In a minute,” she answers. She always stays put, though. Daddy never will know.
Christmas has become a barometer by which I measure my father’s Alzheimer’s progression. His engagement with guests at the dinner table, energy during our annual gift exchange, and overall cognizance of the holiday erode each year. For so long he led the conversation from his spot at the head of the table. He still sits in the captain’s seat but can’t remember how to steer. He knows he should be there; it’s ingrained in his brain. The rest of us quietly regard the ghost of our leader, eating and talking as though he weren’t there. Because he isn’t there. This year Daddy scarfed his food, physically present, but mentally far away in a world devoid of the rattling of iced sweet tea, the clanking of flatware, the rapid passing of the butter: all to Daddy a confusing aural jumble. Upon finishing his plate he asked my mother, “May I be excused?”
Daddy retreated to the familiarity and safety of his bedroom. I only could coax him out when I announced we were opening presents. During his turn, he pulled a bottle of wine out of the same bag three times, repeating the label. Daddy’s sense of interest is a little pile of sawdust that Alzheimer’s is hovering over, and with one more breath will blow away.
The most recent holiday was particularly hard on my mother because Timber couldn’t make it home to celebrate. Ryan and I spent Christmas Eve with my family and Christmas Day with his folks: one of the bittersweet compromises that accompanies marriage. Daddy’s worsening condition paired with Timber’s absence hit Mother with what she called a “double whammy.”
Last Christmas morning everyone woke up together and explored our stockings. Both Daddy and Ryan discovered mini screwdrivers in the big toe of their stockings, which Mother balanced with lip gloss for the girls. When Timber reached the bottom of her stocking, she turned it over, eventually shaking it with dismay, then anger.
“What?” she gasped. “Where’s my mini screwdriver?!”
“The men got screwdrivers, honey,” Mother tiptoed. “And we got lip gloss!”
“BUT! By giving Daddy and Ryan mini screwdrivers, that means you and Bobbin automatically get mini screwdrivers, too. You are singling me out because I’m not married! How could you?!”
Daddy had remained mute the entire morning but ingeniously commented, “Sounds to me like you need to find yo’self a man!”
Daddy’s witticisms are becoming less and less frequent, although lately he sarcastically has harped on Mother’s “financial savvy” and obsessively checked one of his main savings account balances online.
“Look at this!” he exclaimed. “Look at all this money! Your mother was always a brilliant investor.”
Before Alzheimer’s hijacked his brain, Daddy never discussed money; he revealed his salary to me once when my college scholarship applications required I divulge it. I asked Daddy how much money he makes when I was a little girl, and he called my question tacky and rude.
On Christmas Eve night Daddy called his investment firm’s customer service line claiming he had been locked out of his online account, although he simply was looking at the wrong log in credentials in his password reminder book. While we washed the dishes, Mother and I eavesdropped on his conversation with an Edward D. Jones representative.
“I miss him,” Mother said.
I started drying the silverware and sighed, “Yeah. I miss him, too.”
Ryan thinks I place abnormal emphasis on Christmas and Birthdays. But like my obsessive compulsive personality, belief in a higher power, and adoration for hot dogs, the joy I derive from giving and receiving presents is a product of my upbringing. Mother’s thoughtfulness paired with her generous spending of Daddy’s money incited me at an early age to select gifts that prove how well I know their recipients. The folds of my brain flip like file folders containing present ideas noted when my loved ones drop hints in casual conversation: my best friend mentioned longing to shop at the store Helix in downtown Athens, Georgia (Bingo! A Helix gift card! I listen! I am the best friend ever!); Mother drooled over expensive return address stickers on a snobby stationery website (Ooo! Personalized Wages labels with birds on them! I am so giving! I am the cooler daughter!); Timber has been sporting statement necklaces for years (Check it out! An enormous neck piece fashioned from a man’s tie! Hey sis! Do you forgive me yet for breaking that mirror over your head in 1987?!).
While I enjoy watching anyone open a perfectly selected prezzie, in the past I wanted to please my father the most — because he gave me everything. This reminds me of my two favorite stanzas from Billy Collins’ “The Lanyard,” in which Collins’ childhood self fashions a lanyard for his mother at summer camp:
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Similarly, I have offered Daddy a six-pack of Red Stripe to reciprocate for the semen that formed my zygote; a tin “Ranger Parking Only” sign in exchange for my first car; and a Keurig: payback for loving me during my Terrible Teens, sending me to college, and influencing me to uphold 70% of his values.
For so many years Daddy anticipated gift-opening with the excitement and impatience of a child.
“I’m ready to open presents now,” he would announce in the middle of his Birthday dinner.
“Robert, let us finish eating first!” Mother would giggle and whisper, “You can tell he was an only child.”
Daddy hoorayed when Timber gave him his favorite movie, Fiddler on the Roof, on DVD; whooped when he pulled a Waffle House gift certificate from his Father’s Day card; and pumped a fist when he realized a Nordstrom box actually contained fishing gear — his fervor similar to a young boy who received all the pieces to a Lego wonderland from Santa Claus.
Now nothing gets a rise out of Daddy, not a Woolly Bugger fish fly, not a framed picture of the man who saved his life in Vietnam, not even a Varsity chili dog.
I asked Daddy on the phone what he wants for Christmas this year.
“Hmm, I dunno. Thank ye, b-bye!” he hung up.
What the hell do I give the man who deserves the Greatest Christmas Present in the World? I’ll try to meet Daddy in whatever year he’s stuck in, and jog with him on that broken treadmill. And when he decides to disappear in the back of the house and go to sleep, I won’t protest and let him do the one thing that makes him happy.
When not eating, walking the dogs, or coaxed to leave the house, my father sleeps. His robe strongly resembles the lounge attire Leonard often wears on the television show The Big Bang Theory. (See photo to the right; photo of Leonard courtesy of rachaelgibson.co.uk.) Daddy’s robe once symbolized weekend cups of coffee and Christmas morning, but now the Native American print reminds me of the parts of my father Alzheimer’s has taken away. Daddy traipses through the house at 3 p.m. donning the robe in search of an afternoon snack, slippers slapping linoleum; he retired to bed halfway through my uncle’s Birthday dinner on Friday night.
When my parents and I visited Timber in Augusta a few weekends ago, Timber knew not to purchase a fourth ticket for the Taste of Summerville and Tour of Homes. (Summerville is Augusta’s “old money” historic district.) Daddy would rather doze than take a trolley tour of local bars and peruse some of the city’s oldest abodes. While Timber, Mother, and I got ready for the Taste of Summerville, I poked my head into the guest bedroom and watched my father stare into nowhere, contemplating nothing, one series of blinks blurring into the next. I choked a little and proceeded downstairs.
While riding the trolley to the Partridge Inn, we befriended a girl and her mother, whose husband passed away several years ago. After pressuring Mother to take one sip of a mojito (“I have to drive us home!” she insisted), I observed her easy socialization with another woman near her age. I watched the condensation slide down the woman’s mojito glass and around her empty ring finger, realizing my mother is halfway a widow: a few months ago Mother got a flat tire and hitchhiked to a friend’s house in order to call for help. Daddy couldn’t drive to her rescue even if he wanted to. But more disturbingly, he remained unruffled when Mother finally arrived home and described her hideous day.
During lunch at a local cafe Timber mentioned a game she and her friends sometimes play at the dinner table. One person chooses a card from the deck and asks a personal question all diners take turns answering.
“For example,” she explained. “If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be? Mother?”
“I would be funny,” she responded without hesitation. “Some people are naturally funny, and I wish I were like that.”
“I wouldn’t be so jealous,” Timber said. “I tend to envy people’s possessions.”
“I wouldn’t be so obnoxious,” I nodded. “What about you, Daddy? What would you change about yourself?”
“Nothing,” he announced. “I’m perfect.”
The next morning Timber fixed us breakfast. While we waited I solved a pathetic number of words in the Creative Loafing crossword puzzle, and Daddy watched Fox News, shouting questions every few minutes like a child.
“Darlin’, when can we go to Gatlinburg?”
“We agreed we would go in February,” Mother replied.
“Darlin’, can we eat at the Burnin’ Bush when we go to Gatlinburg?”
“The Burning Bush closed, Robert.”
“Darlin’, when are we going to pick up the dogs?”
“When we get back to Calhoun tomorrow afternoon.”
“Darlin’, should pot be legalized?” he asked after watching a news segment about medical marijuana.
“I think it can be useful for medical purposes.”
Daddy’s mind is an eroding canvas, a painting in reverse. I dread the day I disappear from the picture.
Growing up I read Highlights, a children’s magazine. My favorite feature was The Timbertoes, a comic strip about a family made of wood. I hated Hidden Pictures, which required readers to locate small objects masked within a larger illustration.
No, the puddle on that sidewalk doesn’t resemble a spoon, I would scowl while reviewing the answers in the back of the magazine.
That dog’s ear looks nothing like a pear, I would huff.
I didn’t curse then, so I would mutter things like “Oh fooey” and “Foot!”.
“Watch ye mouth,” my father still would sometimes scold me.
Hidden Pictures skewed my sense of self-worth since I never could make out a bottle of toothpaste sketched into a tree trunk or a hardback book that also served as a chimney. Despite the long-term emotional scarring Hidden Pictures caused, I now play a similar game every morning on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s website: the Find Five Challenge. Two color photographs are placed side by side, and within 45 seconds users must click five nuances on the right-hand image that don’t appear on the left. Even worse: three wrong tries, and you’re out. Sometimes my heart races during the final five-second countdown, reawakening memories of my Hidden Pictures failures as a four-year-old.
“A-ha! BOOYAH!” I once shouted when I successfully selected five subtle variations on a Bengal cat’s coat. Perhaps my boss thought I had figured out a particularly challenging string of CSS.
I’m pretty sure that when my father underwent neuropsychological testing he was forced to engage in exercises similar to Hidden Pictures and AJC.com’s Find Five Challenge. He didn’t do well, hence an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
However, Daddy always is quick to point out items my mother recently has purchased; his eagle-eye attention to her shopping habits is deeply branded into his subconscious. Every year Mother scatters hundreds of jack-o-lanterns throughout the house along with other Halloween decorations. Jack-o-lanterns line the mantel, and Mother typically adds a new piece to the echelon every year. A couple weeks ago Mother arranged the multi-mooded pumpkins across the mantel and asked Daddy, “Can you tell me which jack-o-lantern is new?”
“THAT ONE,” Daddy pointed without hesitation.
“You’re right!” Mother beamed.
Mother has spent Daddy’s money so predictably and for so long that Alzheimer’s still can’t cripple that part of his brain.
I came up with a personal slogan for this year’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s: “Fuck Alzheimer’s in the ass!” While inebriated at my family’s lake house, my sisters-in-law and I criss-crossed our arms into a tepee of sorts and screamed, “Fuck Alzheimer’s in the asssssss!”
“Bobbin,” Ryan glared at me from the other end of the dock, pointing at his parents. “Stop.”
“Whatever, Dad,” I slurred. “We care about the cause.”
When I shared my slogan with my friend Adam, whose grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s, he grimaced.
“What, are you offended or something?” I asked, shocked by his prudishness.
“No, it’s just… what if Alzheimer’s likes being fucked in the ass?” Adam explained.
“Good point,” I squinted.
What are you up to this weekend? my friend Sean asked me last week on Gchat.
Bobbin: Fucking Alzheimer’s in the ass at the walk.
Sean: Don’t fuck Alzheimer’s up the ass. It probably likes it.
Bobbin: Alzheimer’s would be experimental like that. It fucks over everyone.
I sighed and resolved to use a new slogan next year.
Despite my marketing failures, Team Hot Dog Beehonkus raised $1,116 to help put an end to this dreadful disease. Ryan as well as my mother and four of my in-laws walked with me in addition to making generous donations. We decided to leave my father at home, since he probably wouldn’t be able to handle a 3.1-mile jaunt around Atlantic Station.
The day before the event Daddy seemed strangely talkative and inquisitive on the phone.
“What else is happenin’?” he inquired several times after I discussed our cats, the house, and anything else new that came to mind. Timber also spoke with Daddy that day and mentioned his chattiness to Mother. For the first time in two years, he took interest in her career as a physician’s assistant and asked questions regarding her salary and health benefits.
I guess Daddy rose to the challenge of fucking Alzheimer’s in the ass, too. For a day he acted halfway like himself. However, his whole self would try to ground his 29-year-old daughter for using curse words.