Guest Opinion: Agony of Alzheimer's is lonely road to travel

Sometimes well-crafted words can express with poignancy and elegance all that is intimated in our travails with fate.

Tucson Citizen

I wasn't there when Nana died. The year before, the nursing home doctors told me the visits were hurting me more than they were helping her.

The first few years, I would bring my children and she would visit with them. Only my oldest remembers her. Over the next seven years, when she didn't know herself or me, it became too much.

My 10- and 11-year-old sons were altar boys at her funeral. For years, my prayers had been for her gentle death. When she could still talk, all she would say was how she wanted to go and be with my grandfather, who died 20 years earlier. "Let me go to Jerry."

Cousin Marcie and her husband, Pat, were with my Uncle Jack when pneumonia finally let him move on. Sometime during lunch, he just stopped breathing. We had prayed for that death, too - prayed that the man who had been moved from the assisted-living floor to midlevel and then the acute section would pass away surrounded by the pictures of family and the Alaskan treasures he loved.

At 87, he was gone to join his beloved wife, parents, friends. Marcie called a few minutes later, and her voice was calm.

We know about Alzheimer's in our family. We have watched people we love die by stages until only shells are left. We know that Alzheimer's someday may be something we, too, will face.

Genetic predisposition is only one of its precursors. I added to my odds when I had a brain injury 16 years ago and often wonder when I can't remember things if it's the accident's residual results or more cells dying.

I tend to write about things that are foremost in my thoughts. Since President Reagan died and Nancy laid her head on his casket, it is hard to forget. I hope he knew her love, that it is why he looked at her one last time. With Alzheimer's, they know so little at the end.

More than anything recently, I've noticed a change in the daily sounds. I no longer can set my watch by hearing my neighbor Bill's car pull in the driveway at 7:15.

For the five years we have lived here, his routine never changed. He left at 6:45 a.m. to drive to the nursing home to spend the day with his Gertrude. Bill is 87, slight, with bright blue eyes, dressed neatly in plaid cotton shirts and freshly combed white hair. He loves Arizona. They retired here after living in Chicago, where winds from Lake Michigan always kept him cold.

It was the year before we moved in that he had to make the final decision, when he could no longer take care of Gertrude because the disease had left her unlike the girl he had loved since she was 12.

Yet every day, he would leave early and be there to feed her, dress her, put her in the wheelchair and push her through the nursing home. Then he encountered no words, no recognition, nothing but the memory of the girl he had met in 1932 when they were barely out of childhood.

Last year, my husband had to go for a week's surgical rehabilitation at the same nursing home. Bill would wheel Gertrude into Art's room, talking to her as if she really knew who she was meeting.

One afternoon, I met them in the hall and saw the remnants of the beauty that had been so striking. Her skin was like silk as I held her hands and talked to her. Her skin was like Nana's.

She, too, passed away, with Bill by her side as always. But now his car is in the carport all day, and I worry about him. What now? There were no long lines waiting to salute this passing, no services and only two lines in the paper.

I had never felt akin with Nancy Reagan. But when I watched her put her head on her husband's casket, when I saw her grip her once-estranged daughter's hand, I felt related.

We are a growing number, this grieving family that Alzheimer's has forged. We mourn presidents, grandparents, beloved uncles, a neighbor gone before I could even know her.

Someday maybe my family, too, will join, and their eyes will have that same haunted look seen in Nancy Reagan's. Even now we know each other when we meet, when that shadow passes across our faces at the word "remember." Us. Them. Someday they may meld.

Patricia Simons is a local poet and writer and winner of the Arizona Poetry Society's annual competitions in 1999 to 2002

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