Published in the American Writers Review, June 2019
I remember, early on, a mistake anyone in retirement years might make. “I went a mile in the wrong direction,” she said. “I should have turned right at Albany Avenue, but I usually go straight there, so I just did.”
It didn’t seem, at the time, like a big deal. But she did the same thing two days later, and again the next week: Couldn’t keep her day’s destination in mind, so let habit take over. Later that second week, she made a wrong turn on the way home, and ended up on an extended, not-quite-lost detour.
It made her uneasy. It made me uneasy.
I tried to teach her to let her iPhone steer her home. “Just hold it up to your mouth, and say, ‘Hey Siri, take me home!’ The computer knows where we live.,” I said. “She’ll give you exact, turn-by-turn directions.” We went out for a test ride in my car, and I had her take out her phone to try it.
“How do I start?”
“Hey, Siri,” she said to her phone, and paused.
“Take me home,” I prompted.
“Take me home.”
“Getting directions to home,” Siri intoned cheerfully. “Turn right at Albany Avenue.” My sweet wife held the phone, Siri kept calling the turns, and we were home in no time.
“But I would have come another way,” she said.
“It wouldn’t matter,” I tried to reassure her, explaining how the phone’s GPS function would amend its directions to keep heading her home no matter where she strayed. “Just try it next time,” I urged, “even if at that point you really know how to come home. I want you to practice.”
Next morning, I asked as soon as she got home, “How did it work?”
“I couldn’t remember how to start. It didn’t matter; I knew the way home.”
But the day might come when she wouldn’t remember the way, so I urged her to try it again next time.
Next time came and went, and another next time, and another. She somehow couldn’t summon up those five words: “Hey Siri. Take me home.” We practiced; she forgot.
At the time, she began most days with a trip to the health club to swim laps. I read the newspaper and had breakfast waiting when she got back. It was less than a mile away, but with several turns.
My phone rang one morning. “Do I turn left or right when I start home?”
“Left,” I said. “But Siri can tell you. Remember? ‘Hey Siri, take me home.’ Try saying it.”
She couldn’t. She’d developed some kind of block.
“Stay there,” I said. “I’ll come get you.” She was waiting in the health club parking lot when I got there, and followed me home.
The next morning she came home without incident. A day later, she made a wrong turn, and wasn’t sure exactly where she was when she called. Thanks to the ‘Find My iPhone’ function I figured out her location and went there; she followed me home.
In the meantime, I’d gotten us to see a geriatric specialist, a pleasant, thoughtful woman who had me stay in the waiting room while she put my wife through a few tests. In the months ahead, I would get to know those standard routines. “Try to remember ‘tree’, ‘rabbit’, ‘clock’ and ‘apple’. In a few minutes, I’ll ask you to recall them.” My wife never remembered the day’s choice of words. Or: “Count backward from one hundred by sevens.” That was even worse.
After the doctor had gotten to know her new patient, I was called to join them and we talked. “You have some impairment,” the doctor told my wife. “Are you still driving?” Told yes, she offered an early bit of advice. “Be very careful. You don’t want to hurt someone else. You may have to give it up.”
We made an appointment to see her in another month. The doctor did not then, or at any time later, use the word “Alzheimer’s” when we were with her together. Before long, though, in a private phone conversation, she told me that was almost surely the diagnosis.
Before our next appointment, we’d had the lost-at-the-health-club episodes. I waited while my wife, one-on-one with the doctor, forgot memorized words and got lost counting backward. When I was called to join them, I recounted the occasional difficulties finding the way home. My wife, embarrassed, confirmed my account.
At the doctor’s suggestion, several milestones: I began driving her to the health club every morning, bringing a travel mug of coffee and reading my newspaper in the car or in a waiting room. She said it was a relief; she increasingly worried about losing her way. I began driving her to book club meetings. I also began keeping the grocery-shopping list; sequential thought is one of the early casualties. I took her to the supermarket once, but spent more time keeping track of her than looking for groceries, so thereafter I reluctantly left her at home – until, blessedly, I discovered the grocery chain’s home-delivery service. I of course drove to the things we did together, church and symphonies and plays.
We soon gave up the plays, because she couldn’t follow the stories, and sometimes said so out loud during the performances. Symphonies were hardly better; The Met live in HD was worse.
“I hate being a burden,” she said occasionally.
“Don’t,” I assured her each time. “I like spending more time with you.” Which was true. I knew it was a time to treasure, because before long I would be unable to meet all her needs, and I had read that caregiver exhaustion might set in. Worst, I knew that the time lay ahead when she could do few if any of the things that had made her a lively, engaging companion and help-meet over six decades of marriage.
She must have known that too, or at least sensed it. How could one not? It must be unspeakably depressing to need help with such mundane activities as getting to the health club. I was amazed that she remained cheerful most of the time.
The time finally came when she asked: “Do I have Alzheimer’s?”
I saw no point in dissembling. “I’m afraid so,” I said, fighting back tears. “We’ll get through it together.”
A few weeks later, we sold her car. She agreed: She hadn’t wanted to drive in months, and there was no point in having two. She drove it to the dealership, following me carefully, and kept up a cheerful appearance while we did the paperwork and then came home together.
That day, giving up any hope that she might ever again be able to drive herself anywhere, stands out in my memory as an unusually prominent milestone in a long road.
I asked her the other day, after writing this, if she remembered taking her car to the dealership. She didn’t. I tried again: “I was trying to recall whether you followed me, or I followed you, and what the weather was like.
A long pause. “I don’t drive anymore,” was all she could say.