"There's no place I'd rather be," that's what Ken, my neighbor told me. Ken's wife, Connie is my friend. Lately she doesn't remember we're friends, but that's okay. We meet on my daily walks and chat. I can tell she likes me. She always smiles and waves and waits for me to catch up. I like her too. Always have. Some people you just know right away. She remembers that Ken is her husband. She calls him, "Daddy." That's what happens when you raise kids. Some things remain even after the nest is empty of all its downy feathers. She whispers to me that he's overweight and that's why they're walking every day. She doesn't always remember her kids or grandkids, but when I mention them it either kickstarts a connection or she fakes it.
My mother had Alzheimer's, and I have lots of extended family and friends who have loved ones with memory loss so I know the tricks. It no longer scares or flusters me. I'm not hurt that she doesn't remember all our Christmas exchanges and impromptu get-togethers. Me, perched on her kitchen barstool, her, on the opposite side of the counter, each of us holding the stem of our matching wineglasses, chatting, laughing. She doesn't remember the girl with the cigarette I painted for her -- she used to smoke and now she says she just collects artwork of women smoking.
"That's okay," I say and rub the side of her arm. Connie brushes back my hair and tells me I'm pretty in that who are you anyway Alzheimer's way. I tell her I'll remember for the both of us. It's like picking up a piece of luggage for someone you love and carrying it for awhile to give them a break. I can do that. Ken meets us at her mailbox. He's ready for their walk and they wave to me and I watch as their matching white walking shoes turn the corner.
Ken announced his retirement last March. They had already spent over a year doc hopping from one specialist. No, it wasn't Alzheimer's they said. Then came the barrage of tests and then some more. In the end, it was, or at least that's the label they finally settled on. My heart aches for them. A couple in their seventies, in relatively good health, their home finally paid off, their kids finally established, four grandbabies to dote on and what should have been a decade (at least) of travel and ease, of being comfortable in body, in mind, in finances, in life -- and poof! Soon after Ken retired and Connie got her diagnosis they took off to Canada to visit her sisters. Bucket list time, I call it. Then came the trip to Texas to see more family. This spring they celebrated their daughter's wedding.
Connie's losing weight. I don't know if she's forgetting to eat or her body is forgetting how to metabolize. It brings back memories of my own frail mother and my helplessness to make it right. Ken gets her anything she fancies. A home health aide visits monthly. Their days are full and varied: Sam's Club for toilet paper, wine and cheese, Publix for the weekly necessities and Home Goods to fuel Connie's love of decorating. Their home is as airy and light as she is -- amethyst and spring green glass vases and plates line their shelves. Ken doesn't seem to dwell on what he's missing or what they're missing. So what, no golf, he'd say. Their morning walks, their weekly errands, settling in for an evening of home movies they recently transferred to DVD's seem genuinely enough.
Call me a sap, but they remind me of the couple in The Notebook. Author Nicolas Sparks writes, "We sit silently and watch the world around us. This has taken a lifetime to learn. It seems only the old are able to sit next to one another and not say anything and still feel content. The young, brash and impatient, must always break the silence. It is a waste, for silence is pure...."
Don't get me wrong, I have a sizeable bucket list and a big marker to check off and add more: Live a summer in the South of France and paint the sunflowers en plein air just as Vincent Van Gogh did in 1888, take a pilgrimage to trace my birth mother's life in the West Virginia coal country, accompany my adopted granddaughter back to Ethiopia, land of her birth. I have a posse of girlfriends to take on spa weekends and art treks, and my husband and I don't plan on wasting any time racking up more adventures. But know this -- of all the places I dream of going -- there's only one place I need to be.