Great-grandkids to the rescue

Dad hasn’t been giving me much new material lately. Most of our conversations re-hash already well-worn territory: how Mom is doing (content, but not making much sense–“about all we can hope for”), how he’s doing (anywhere from “if I were any better, I’d be sick” to not doing much due to a bad case of “the black ass”–depression in Dadspeak), what’s happening around the lake (new neighbors from Illinois were up, old neighbors had a big gang over the Fourth, mowed the lawn, made some cigarettes, didn’t go to see Mom yesterday, but going today, gotta buy some groceries and visit the poisoners, Paco rolled in dead fish, when are you coming up next?), etc.  I’m hopeful that our upcoming “cemetery tour” will lift his spirits, and provide plenty of opportunity for him to reminisce and for me to register more of his vernacular.

We did provide him recently with some “jollification,” to borrow a word from my sister Mary. My husband and I gathered at the lake with our two kids, their spouses and children for a few days of fun, northern Wisconsin style.

Some of the family

Some of the family

Dad absolutely loved seeing his three great-grandsons and found them highly entertaining, if a bit too loud at times. Of course, he has given them nicknames: Bouncing Benny (4) and his brother Jumping Jimmy (15 months) and Wild Willie (18 months).

3 Williams

The three Williams: Great-grandpa Bill, Grandson Bill “Buster”Pence, Great-grandson Willie Leazer

Four-year-old Ben especially amused him with all his activity–“busy as a one-armed paper hanger,”or more salty, “a two-peckered goat in a sheep pasture.” Ben was fascinated by Great-grandpa’s collection of meticulously built radio-controlled airplanes, which are all now moth-balled and suspended from the garage ceiling in special hanging brackets. Ben declared that he would like to fly them and was pretty sure he was up to the task, completely dismissing my admonition that it’s “very tricky.” “Why is it tricky, Grandma?” Great-grandpa Bill managed to satisfy Ben’s curiosity by taking him to the RC-flying club’s flying field to watch some of the members fly their planes. Ben loved watching the acrobatics, clapped with glee and cheered as Mr. Wally brought his plane in for a successful landing. On the other hand, when Mr. Rusty crashed his plane in the tall grass and brought it back to the staging area in three pieces, Ben couldn’t understand why he had done that, still not believing that it really is very tricky.

RC-flying field

The gang at the flying field

So, for a few days Dad had something to think about other than how bad he feels about Mom not being at home anymore, his best friend dying in June (that contributed greatly to the black ass) and life just generally not holding much allure anymore. The cemetery tour was Dad’s idea and is something he has been wanting to do for a while. He wants to pay his respects to his ancestors, visit their graves, take a nostalgia tour of the places he lived as a youngster. We had planned to do it a couple of times over the past year or so, but he reneged both times. Originally, he wanted Mom to go with us, and postponed once with the hope that she would be able to go at some point. He finally accepted that that was impossible. The second time he backed out, he said he just couldn’t go (anywhere) without Mom. I think this time we will go because he really wants to do this before he dies, and I think he is getting ready to die. Part of the cemetery tour includes another quick dose of Bouncing Benny and Jumping Jimmy, which I hope will provide Dad another respite from the black ass.

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The language falters…

There’s a lot of linguistic stuff happening in my family lately. Some of it is good, fantastic even, like the other day when my three and a half year old grandson’s eyes opened wide upon spying my cleaning lady swiping at cobwebs with a telescoping duster, and he said, “Wow. She doesn’t even need to use an arterial handler to reach up high.” Arterial handler, material handler–whatever. I love listening to him create and use language. New words stick to him as lint to Velcro. He rolls them around in his mouth, chews them up, savors them and digests them to nourish his rapidly expanding vocabulary. At times, words tumble out of him faster than his tongue can handle, and he stutters as he struggles to order his thoughts and put them into words. And, the marvelous part is that he is able to do just that with every-increasing proficiency and complexity. His one-year-old brother is developing his oral language skills mostly by shrieking so far, but also yelling his big brother Ben’s name (“Ba!”) as he crawls around after him or whenever he hears Ben in another room. Likewise, his 15-month-old cousin gleefully points out and declares, “Da!” at every sighting of a dog, large or small. I’m sure they will soon be wowing their grandma with their linguistic prowess as well.

 

Then, there’s my mom. An Alzheimer’s type dementia has been slowly but surely robbing her of her linguistic proficiency for the last eight years or so, and the decline has been particularly striking and heart-wrenching in the last six months. The first thing I noticed about eight years ago was that the sentence structure in her annual Christmas letter was much simpler than it used to be; there were virtually no complex or compound sentences. And, Mom was no slouch in the language department either. She prided herself on her precise enunciation and command of English grammar and corrected her children’s grammar at every opportunity. I clearly remember learning several fancy words from her as a kid:  inclement (written in an excuse to a teacher as to why we had been delayed returning from a trip to my grandparents’ house), obstreperous (used to describe my brother) and loquacious (said about my sister Mary). As time went by, Mom started to have trouble retrieving common words and telling an organized story, much to her own frustration. Eventually, she forgot the names of many everyday items and had trouble expressing her thoughts, needs and wants. Nonetheless, she would amaze (and fool) us with her ability to utter appropriate cliches in response to certain conversation prompts or social situations. For example, up until recently, when asked how she was, she would invariably reply, “Well, I’m able to be up and about.” Or, whenever she would see me again after an absence, she would say, “Well, you’re sure looking good.” She should have been a politician! By last year at this time, Mom had pretty much lost her ability to carry on a conversation, but she still seemed to enjoy listening to the talk around her and could respond more or less appropriately to a direct question. But, over the course of last summer, she seemed more and more lost in her own world, largely unable to communicate any but the most basic thoughts and sometimes speaking incoherently. She was resorting more and more to gesturing, making faces, and laughing. Thank God for the laughter. She could still enjoy a joke and some silly fun. Just about the time when I thought her speech was no longer was making much sense at all, this past autumn Dad asked her at breakfast one morning, “Well, Ma, what are you going to do to piss me off today?”  Without hesitating, she replied, “I don’t know, but I’m sure I’ll think of something.” Cracked all three of us up. Then Dad told me they had the same “conversation” every morning.

That was last fall. Mom fell at Thanksgiving time, and after a short hospital stay and a six-week stint in a nursing home, we moved her into an assisted living home in January. Physically, she has recovered from the fall, but being institutionalized did not do her cognition any good. With every transition she seemed to lose more linguistic ability to the point where now she carries on conversations mostly with herself. What she is able to articulate in words often doesn’t make any sense to those of us that adhere to more accepted linguistic norms, but she carries on as if she is making sense  or reverts to laughter to smooth over the gaps in understanding. I guess that’s an old conversational trick we all use at times and another one that dies hard.

For my dad, of course, this process of watching and trying to deal with Mom’s mental decline has been devastating. It would be for any spouse. But, I can’t help feeling that for him it is especially hard because his way of interacting with people, including her, has always been about the B.S.– the banter, the debate, the verbal give-and-take, the expounding, the pontificating, the lecturing, the ranting, and always with the ear tuned for a smart rejoinder, a witty comeback, a new joke–something to incorporate into his own vernacular. Mom was his foil and (mostly) appreciative audience for over 60 years–laughing at his oft-repeated jokes and stories in spite of herself and sharing in the fun, even when it was at her expense. It was part of  their public and private dialogue, their dialect, their dance. Now the dialogue has become a monologue, the dialect is becoming extinct, and the dance is coming to an end.

There is much research being done into Alzheimer’s dementia and how to relate to patients and understand their needs and the reasons for some of their bizarre behavior. Familiar music, old photos, and coloring all seem to help calm my mom and trigger some memories, but so far I cannot decipher this new language that her diseased brain produces and that she tries mightily to use. I can only cling to the moments when we share a laugh over something silly, she acknowledges that I’m her daughter, or at the end of a largely unintelligible visit, she hugs me and says as plain as day, “You can leave now, but you come back to see me.” And, I will go back, always hoping for a glimpse of the woman I used to know and whose advice and easy company I miss so much. I would give anything to discuss a book with her or to have her know her great-grandchildren, to marvel at their intelligence, teach them fancy words, and even correct their grammar.