July 26, 2013

FREY: Living in an unfamiliar world


---- — When my husband and I were first married, we lived in a second-floor apartment in Farmington Hills, Mich.

Living right below us was a husband and wife, who, at the time, looked as though they might be in their early 60s.

When we first met the couple in the hallway, I immediately observed that the woman had a far away and distant look in her eyes, as if she was sifting through our conversations with great pain.

When I reached over to shake her hand after introductions, it was clear that moving her right hand just a few inches to meet mine was a struggle.

The man, inquisitive and jovial in nature, and quite the conversationalist, did all of the talking and laughing.

A few weeks later, the man, who was on his way home from work, stopped me in the hallway. In a whispered voice, as if not to be heard by his wife, the man told me that she had Alzheimer’s disease.

The man shared with me how at first his wife started forgetting little things, like where she had placed the shopping list and car keys. Later, as the disease progressed, it became difficult to maneuver around the apartment, and she could not remember where she was at all.

Then the request came.

The man asked if I would be available to occasionally visit his wife.

The proposition, I thought to myself, was a courageous one. I said yes.

The first visit is the one I remember most. While sitting on the sofa in the living room and drinking cups of hot tea, we chatted about everyday topics, nothing too pressing or stressful, and there was no mention about her affliction.

After tea, I took the cups and saucers to the kitchen, where, I at once realized, was one source of much confusion for my neighbor.

There, attached to every cabinet and drawer were light yellow sticky notes, at least a hundred of them, all of which indicating where objects were housed. The words, all in large upper and lower case letters, were written in black ink. The words were simple things like forks, knives, spoons, bowls, cereal dishes, glasses, pans, baking dishes, toaster, pens, pencils, and paper.

At 29, I could not imagine living in such a world, a world that had to be processed by words on sticky notes, words learned at an early age, words that somehow have become jumbled with the objects they represent.

I understand that world today.

We have not gotten to the point where my father-in-law has the far away and distant look in his eyes, but his short-term memory is fading rapidly.

Discussions about the past, however, are usually brought to life almost immediately. Most of the time I see my father-in-law struggling, seeking a common ground, looking for a starting point, trying desperately to find a vague recollection.

But sometimes, when we least expect it, he catches us unawares.

My father-in-law remembers, for instance, that Jimmy Stewart is in the movie “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation.”

He remembers that he and his wife played Monopoly when they were first married. “We played that game for hours,” he happily says, seemingly trying to hold on to the memory of that memory.

He remembers that his granddaughter is a nurse, that the other is a teacher, and that his grandson is a swimmer.

And on a good day, my father-in-law, with bright eyes and a familiar smile from days past, will blurt out something so funny, we all have tears of laugher running down our cheeks.

And for just a few minutes, just a few, all is right with the world.

Alvia Lewis Frey is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at