Peter Shelton

Alzheimer’s: What Lies Inside

Posted in Personal History, Watch columns by pshelton on November 3, 2011

W followed M onto the porch to greet us as we pulled in. He looked like one of those Holocaust survivors in the photos, skin-and-bones in their pajamas behind the wire as the Allied troops walked up.

This is a man Ellen and I have known for 40 years. Ellen was a bridesmaid at their wedding. Their girls and our girls are about the same age. We’ve taken family ski vacations together. He was a lawyer and a gentleman farmer, quick and funny with a maddening twist of Midwest conservatism.

We knew about the Alzheimer’s. M told us soon after she got the diagnosis a couple of years ago. W himself joked about how he couldn’t be trusted alone on the slopes at Purgatory anymore. He might forget where he was.

But this was different. M had called and said come down to Durango now, W had taken a sudden, dramatic turn for the worse, Hospice was on the scene, he was barely eating or drinking. Come on Sunday, she said, we’ll have lunch and – she didn’t say it in so many words, but she was in fact imploring us – come and say goodbye.

We hugged M in her apron. Then we hugged W, and my hand on his back felt only space between his wing bones. He seemed to be trying to say something. He moved his lips dryly, and a faint high groan emerged. But that was it. His light blue eyes – were they always that pale? – peered outward with a fierce emptiness. That’s the best I can describe it. They appeared blank and angry at the same time, if that’s possible. What was going on behind those eyes?

Because M had said Hospice, I half expected to find W bedridden. But he was able to shuffle around the deck in his socks and even get into and out of a wooden armchair, shakily, on his own. (It was one of those fall days in southern Colorado that will break your heart with the beauty: sunlight like water, early snow on the peaks, backlit aspens rattling their gold coins.)

M brought W a brimmed hat. She called it his Harrison Ford hat. And she brought me a hat, too. (I’d neglected to bring any kind of sun visor.) It was a red-and-white St. Louis Cardinals ball cap, ultra appropriate since the Cards had just wrapped up their World Series win, and St. Louis is M and W’s hometown.

It gave me something to talk to W about. Ellen and M had retreated to the kitchen. M desperately needed to huddle with her friend, and W’s afternoon caregiver was not due to arrive for another hour or two.

How about that David Freese, I said. Local kid, plays his high school ball in St. Louis, and ends up being the Series MVP. W didn’t react. There were some pistachios in a bowl on the table. He reached for one and worked hard for a while to open the shell. When he did, he tossed all three pieces, including the meat, onto the couch where the ladies had been sitting. He took another nut and worked it with long, bony fingers.

There was more tossing of shells, but I also heard some loud cracking as W chewed. At least one half shell had gotten into his mouth with a nutmeat. I didn’t know what to do. (His teeth were apparently in great shape!) Nothing to do; the oblivious hard crunching diminished in time.

Then W closed his eyes and dozed. M said he sleeps a lot. It was as if cosmic scissors had come along and snipped connections in his brain. Alzheimer’s, from what I understand, does just the opposite though with the same result: a kind of plaque builds up, nerve cells become clogged or entangled, and communication within the brain is impeded.

Usually, it takes many years to progress (or regress) through the stages, from mild to moderate to severe. W had seemingly gone from mild to severe in a few weeks.

Just a couple of weeks before, they had flown to St. Louis for a family wedding. He’d danced with his niece. He’d talked with and appeared to recognize people. He’d had a good time.

Once more before we left W moved his lips and groaned as if trying to form words, or find words. I couldn’t help but imagine a man inside there, still thinking, still trying, but trapped in a frustrated silence, the fierce/empty eyes able to communicate only this.

That’s just speculation, though. We hugged goodbye, and W’s eyes seemed to look past us to some distant, unknowable place.

One Response

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  1. Mary Ann Dismant said, on November 4, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    That was a heartbreakingly beautiful piece. Thank you for letting us see W’s eyes so clearly and speculate about that “distant, unknowable place” where he may have been looking. Do you know who said “the eyes are the windows of the soul?” It sounds like a Catholic saint, but I’m guessing.

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