Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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October 12, 2004
To: Future Me
From: Past You
Re: Your Condition
If you are reading this letter, then I have some bad news for you. You’ve always been a straight shooter, so here it is: You have Alzheimer’s.
Wait, don’t tear this letter up! I know you are angry. I’m perfectly fine, you’re saying. All these people who tell me I’m sick, they’re wrong! (For your sake, I hope there are “all these people.” I hope you are surrounded by friends and family who care about you. You were at times, in your youth, not entirely likable. I hope you have daughters by your side — beautiful, smiling daughters.)
I apologize; this is already confusing you. Allow me to start over. The memo you are reading, you wrote. I am you, albeit a younger you (hopefully by many, many years). Which is to say, you are me — although some philosophers would argue that this isn’t possible, that people change from one moment to the next. A man believes that he’ll never slap his girlfriend, and five minutes later he’s swinging at her head like it’s a ping-pong ball. Postal workers snap, pillars collapse. Jews convert to Christianity, Christians convert to Islam, we all stop believing in God. So I am not you. I was you, and, unfortunately, you will be me.
Forgive me. I’ve gone off on a tangent. Forget that last paragraph, if you haven’t already. It concerns me more than you anyway. Do you remember writing this letter? You were at your sister’s house, your childhood home, and you composed the letter in the same chair your father had his heart attack in. You wrote this letter, and others like it, because after a near-death experience and the appointed therapy that followed (OK, it wasn’t a near-death experience; you tried to hurt yourself), you decided you had your shit together. You wanted to preserve that wisdom and pass it on to the future yous who might need it.
After that one time you tried to kill yourself, you swore you’d never do it again. Do you remember putting the plastic bag over your head? (Needless to say, it was after Patrice left.) In the end, all you got from that little escapade was a bump on the head. But it could have been a lot worse. You’re lucky just to be alive to read this letter.
Do you remember worrying that someday you’d get Alzheimer’s? You stopped cooking with aluminum and gobbled ibuprofen like they were M&M’s. Do you remember your mother? She got Alzheimer’s after your father died. You stuck her in a home and turned off the phone and waited for her to die. You wished that somebody would put an air bubble in her IV.
Forget that. Let me start over. You have Alzheimer’s. (Quit saying that! you say. What kind of nonsense is this?) You remember some things, but you forget others. If you’re like your mother, then you remember a lot from when you were a kid. The street address of the house you grew up in, for instance, or your childhood phone number. (When your mother was locked away in the nursing home, she used to put on her coat and say, “I’m leaving. I’m not sick. Chesterfield 4-6583.”) It is quite likely that you remember the names of your fourth-grade teacher, the neighbor who went to jail for molesting children, and your cat who hung himself by the cord of the blinds (by accident, presumably). Yet you can’t remember what you had for dinner last night. In fact, let’s do a little test:
These are questions most people can answer. I have a lot on my mind, you say. Who cares what I had for dinner? you say. These are common defense mechanisms employed by people with dementia. Some say it’s because, in your unconscious, you’re afraid.
Have you forgotten why you are reading this? I apologize for being so disorganized. I’ve always been this way, which makes me think I’m predisposed to your condition. It’s partly genetic, they say, something to do with chromosome 19, or 14, or 21. You are genetically more akin to your mother than to your father (at least you didn’t have a heart attack at fifty-two), so it seems likely that you’ll get Alzheimer’s.
What I just used there is called “two-step logic,” which may be one step too many for you. Logical thinking is one of the first things to go. Let me ask you a question:
If A=B, and B=C, then A=?
This is a pretty simple problem. You could answer it in fourth grade. You were a bright kid. Do you remember the awards you won? The scholarships? So many possibilities! I think I should start over:
Well, that’s four-step logic, but it’s the best I can do, Bucko. Does anyone still call you “Bucko”? Patrice used to call you that. Surely you remember Patrice. She was so beautiful. You practically killed yourself over your memories of her, so maybe it’s a blessing you got Alzheimer’s. You remembered her too well: the places you went, the bookstore staircase where she dropped her hat, the riverbank you rolled upon. You tortured yourself with memories. You built a room in your head devoted to her, and you sat in that room for hours and stared at the pictures of the two of you that lined the walls. Maybe you can’t get in that room anymore. Maybe the pictures are gathering dust. Or maybe the room’s gone altogether, and the pictures too, wiped out like the Bikini Atoll after the A-bomb tests. It’s “plaque,” the doctors say. Brain plaque.
The Alzheimer’s brain isn’t very adept with metaphors, so most of the last paragraph probably sounds like what experts in the field call “gobbledygook.” But I remember Patrice, you’re saying. And I’m sure you do, but can you picture her? Can you remember her the way I remember her? Do you remember the color of her eyes? What about the color of the sweater she was wearing when she dropped her hat and you told her that you loved her? It was green, in case you’ve forgotten. Her eyes were brown, and the hat was a winter hat, with a puffball attached to a string. (Whatever you do, though, forget the last dinner you had together at Gabriello’s. In fact, forget I even mentioned Gabriello’s. Forget your silly, jealous accusation and the knocked-over glass of wine and the threats — from the waiter, of all people!)
It’s important you remember her! Try!
I picture you now in some futuristic chair, lost in an hours-long trance, this letter grasped in your clawlike hand. Your mother sat like that, always clutching some object, an old photo or a cup of ice cream that had long since melted. I wonder where you are at such moments. Are you alive again and chasing Patrice’s red parka down a ski slope? Are you with her at the lip of the Grand Canyon looking down? (Courtney asked Mom about these trances one time, and Mom thought she was picking on her and threw a pop bottle at Courtney and gave her a black eye.) I wonder what you look like. Do you have a long white beard? A potbelly? What does a futuristic recliner look like? Can it be steered into the kitchen? My picture of the future is about as murky as your picture of the past. But as fate would have it, Bucko, I’m not the sick one.
I’m going to interrupt for just a second to give you a reminder: you have Alzheimer’s, and this letter was written by a younger you.
If I have confused you or troubled you, I’m sorry. It’s not because I don’t love you. You may be wondering why you wrote yourself this letter (or why your daughters aren’t home from school yet, or what that ringing noise is you sometimes hear). For starters, you may have forgotten you have Alzheimer’s. (This surely isn’t the first time you’ve been told. How many more times will this news be broken?) Alzheimer’s patients get agnosia, which is a small gift from God that keeps them from knowing what it is they’ve got. In fact, you’ll get to the point where you don’t know you’ve got anything at all. At said point, your sister Courtney will stop handing you this letter, and you can forget all about me. Until then I have to remind you to listen to the people around you. They’re trying to help, and you’re not making it easy on them! (But don’t trust strangers. And don’t sign anything. Some clever cocksucker came to your mother’s house and signed her up for forty-three magazine subscriptions. She was getting Time and Newsweek and Idaho Living and Guns & Ammo. Remember the Penthouse she got? You kept that one. It had pictures of two women kissing in a stable, Jennifer and Rebecca. God bless them and the horses they rode in on! My advice to you is to remember them well. In fact, right now I’m going to help drill them into your memory. They’re in the next room waiting for me, hay-strewn hair, heavy breasts, and all. I can lie down in my lonely bed and almost bring them to life just by thinking about them.)
Listen to your sister. She will be good to you — at least, she’d better be! She owes you. You bailed her out of trouble a couple of times, once literally, after she ran her car over the curb and knocked the Buzz Aldrin Memorial into that Chinese restaurant. The collision shook a wok off the wall, and it hit a dishwasher in the head. He claimed he forgot his name and how to do his job. He remembered how to call a lawyer, though.
Do you recall any of this? Do you remember telling your mother not to talk to anyone about the case? You had to, because your mother had begun to act strangely. This was before you knew she had Alzheimer’s, and you had stopped by her house to pick up Teddy-phant. Surely you remember Teddy-phant! It’s too bad you don’t have him anymore. Your mother pulled Druzhok, her teddy bear, out of her memory box after she got sick and slept with him every night. They slept on that bed that was like an island in an ocean of stacked magazines. Forty-three subscriptions! She wouldn’t throw them out! Remember the newspapers? She kept reorganizing their sections into piles that made sense only to her. Every day she learned the terrible news that JFK Jr.’s plane had crashed into the sea. Eventually her piles took over the bed, and when you stopped by the house to check in on her and retrieve Teddy-phant, it looked as if she and Druzhok were sleeping in a newspaper coffin. Anyway, you were going to give Patrice Teddy-phant as an apology gift. And you did give him to her, but when she opened the box, his trunk had fallen off.
I’m getting off track again. I need to complete this trip down memory lane. You need to know that you were a good person, a good person who made difficult decisions during tough times. Here we go:
When you stopped by the house for Teddy-phant, your mother was on the phone, happily chatting away about all of Courtney’s past indiscretions. She remembered them quite well, and in great detail, going all the way back to the time Courtney got drunk and passed out on top of a semitrailer at a highway rest stop. You asked your mother who she was talking to, and she said, “A nice man from the newspaper,” and you slapped the phone from her hand, knocking over a cookie jar on the counter. Mom started bawling like a child, and you said things like “What’s wrong with you?” and “Why don’t you use your head?” and “What the fuck is wrong with your fucking head?” What a temper you had! Your eruptions were frequent and violent, and the ash sifted down around everyone you knew and painted the world gray. You lost your job and your apartment and your Patrice. What a disaster you were! What are you like now? Do you point out fat people? Do you start conversations with total strangers? Do you display inappropriate sexual behavior around your daughters? The dark side comes out when you have Alzheimer’s. You may be more difficult than you think!
I apologize for being so tangential. The truth is, I’m having a few drinks. Jeffrey, your old therapist, says I’m not supposed to, but tonight is a special occasion, seeing as I’m dealing with both my past and my future stupidities at the same time. Let me be direct:
When your sister got in trouble, you called your friend at the DA’s office. He knew certain policemen who knew how to scare a foreigner. The amnesiac dishwasher was legal, apparently, but the policemen explained how papers sometimes got lost and such. They told him that the courts frowned on superfluous lawsuits brought by foreigners, and that if he went to court he could forget about his wife ever making it to the U.S. To which the dishwasher replied, “I have a wife?”
Suffice it to say he was probably faking it. Amnesia doesn’t happen much outside of Hollywood (and old folks’ homes). You probably barely remember any of this, and you don’t deserve to feel any more than a smidgen of guilt anyway.
My point is that you were looking out for your sister, and now she owes you, and you should listen to her, and that the dishwasher was probably pulling a scam. I’m not angry with you.
You did lots of good things in your life — several, at the very least. Remember them! Remember the drives you used to take with your sick mother, those moments of uncomplicated joy you provided her, how you played oldies and she tried to snap her fingers and clap her hands to the beat. She was so innocent, so happy. She looked . . . well, she looked like a retarded person, but she was pleased with her life. And she was always decent, even while streaking through the neighborhood in the middle of the night. Maybe uncomplicated joy isn’t a gift you’re going to get, but you helped give it to someone else. That’s worth something.
Let me get back to the purpose of this letter: You need to listen to the people around you. You need to listen to your sister — unless she has started drinking again. In that case, be suspicious. (I probably don’t need to instruct you on this, seeing as paranoia buzzes like a bee through the Alzheimer’s brain.) If Courtney is drinking, don’t give her any money. And whatever you do, don’t sign any papers. She’ll send you to a place like the one you sent her to (rehab), but yours will be even worse. In her bitter, intoxicated state, she’ll find this irony somewhat satisfying. She’s got a dark side, too. Look out.
I feel like I’m being unfair to you. How many times have you read this letter for the first time? All you want to do is look at pictures of animals and read the riddles on popsicle sticks, and here I am forecasting doom. Here’s something fun for you. See if you can guess what this is:
Do you know? Turn the page sideways and you might get it.
It’s a smiley face!
Here’s another one. Don’t forget to turn the page sideways.
A frowny face!
OK, one more. No need to turn the paper this time.
If you can’t see the tree, don’t worry. Your mother couldn’t find Waldo on the back of a cereal box even when I pointed him out to her. You’re probably not understanding much of this letter, for that matter. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably confused and angry. Should I remind you that you wrote this letter to yourself? The year was 2004, and people still didn’t have personal flying devices. There was no cure for cancer, and the moon had not yet been turned into a penal colony. You were writing it at your sister’s house, and you had to go to work the next day, and after work you had to visit your mother and spoon-feed her puréed potatoes.
So why am I writing this letter? If you’re reading it, then I’m gone, baby. My ship has sailed. I’m a speck on your horizon. I know more about you than you do about me. I just want to try, just one more time, to get you to remember one thing:
You are with Patrice on the subway going to a downtown bookstore. It is snowing, a lot (it always snows more in memory), and Patrice’s cheeks are red. She looks a bit like an Indian. You have to stand on the subway because it’s Christmas-time, and Patrice keeps bouncing into you. She’s warm. At the bookstore the two of you go in different directions, and you see a magazine-cover photo of the most beautiful woman in the world, and you think to yourself: Patrice is better. You suddenly have to tell her this, and you find her on the stairs. A man with a Marshall Field’s shopping bag and an uneven mustache brushes past her, and she drops her hat. You are two steps below her, so she seems much taller than you, and her snow-wet hair drips water onto her green sweater. You hand Patrice her hat, but you won’t let go, and she laughs and says, “What is it? What’s wrong?” Her eyes, remember her eyes: they loved you.
What a life you lived! Think about all you’ve done! I’ll remind you:
I suppose that’s enough.
Forget the night I wrote this letter. Forget the drinks I had. Go in peace, Bucko. I pray that somewhere, perhaps, you left behind at least a small mark of beauty.