Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Losing a Friend Part II
It was in 2001 when I first noticed that Bob might have a problem. I had given him a new computer and he was having a problem opening e-mails with attachments. Several times during my previous visits I sat with him and showed him the steps to open his e-mail, click on the “Download” button, and then click on the “Open” button. Yet, each time I visited Bob he told me he didn’t know how to download a file attachment (usually a picture.) For about the umpteenth time I sat with him at his computer again and told him to write down the three steps as I would show him again. I went through the steps, looking at Bob each time I went to the next step. It was then I had one of those moments that you see in the TV commercial for Alzheimer’s medicine. I knew. Looking at Bob all I saw was his gaping mouth and his eyes which showed that he wasn’t registering what I was showing him. His face was a blank slate. Nothing I was saying was sinking in. He couldn’t connect the dots.
Over the past few years prior to this moment I had noticed little signs like this. We used to joke about it as one of the “benefits” of getting older. Things that we used to take for granted like remembering where we put our glasses or car keys, we would forget. I know myself that I have to have a set routine or else I will misplace things. But I noticed that Bob’s forgetfulness was soon outpacing even my lapses of memory. Bob became so concerned that he brought the issue of his fear of dementia or Alzheimer’s to the attention of his caregiver at the Veterans Administration. He was told that as long as he was remembering that he was forgetting “not to worry, he didn’t have a problem.” So we both dismissed our forgetfulness as an inevitable consequence of getting old.
However, there was one thing nagging in my mind. I remember reading some years ago a woman’s account of her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease. She said at first she would dismiss her mother’s forgetfulness as signs of her getting older. She and her family would make excuses for her mother’s sometimes bizarre behavior. But, as time went on, her mother’s forgetfulness and sometimes unusual behavior became harder to ignore. Perhaps the telltale sign was her mother’s retreat into silence. Of course there were the usual “good days” and “bad days.” Some days her mother would be her old self. Then on other days her mother would sit on the sidelines with a vacant look on her face, mouth hanging agape. That is what is happening to my friend Bob now. He sits with the vacant look, his mouth hanging agape.
More and more of those telltale “moments” were happening now. Bob has lived in Delaware since 1976. This past summer I called him to ask how long he has lived in Delaware. He said “Three years.” I said “Three years?” He said “Yes.” I said “You’re kidding! Three years?” He said “Yes.” He wasn’t kidding. I hung up the phone. A few minutes later he called back. He said “Did I say I lived here three years?” I said “Yes.” He said “I’ve lived here longer than that.” I asked “How long?” He said “Longer than that.” I asked again, “When did you move here?” He said “It was longer than three years.” End of conversation. This is when I knew he had a problem. He had no idea of how long he has lived in Delaware.
For the last several years I noticed that during our long phone conversations, I was doing most of the talking. That’s not unusual for me (as those who know me will knowingly attest), but our phone conversations were increasingly becoming one sided. At times I would ask Bob if he was still on the line. We used to have animated conversations on the phone. We would get into all kinds of discussions. Not any more. I felt like I was doing a solo reading. I dismissed this as my fault for dominating the conversation. It wasn’t too long though before my partner Bill made a comment about his phone conversations with Bob. Bill didn’t call Bob near as much as I did but he would occasionally call Bob to chat. Bill told me that he sometimes wondered if Bob was even on the line. I said to Bill, “Have you noticed that too? It seems like he isn’t there.” Now I know I can dominate a conversation but this was ridiculous. I was calling my long time friend to basically have a one sided conversation. Gradually, I stopped calling. My long time confidant was fading away.
Another sign of Bob’s failure of memory was his inability to keep a date. For years Bob and his partner Jim, and another friend had what they called the “Old Fart’s Night Out.” This was to get their friend Bart, a grumpy 86 year old closeted gay man out at least one night of the week. Bob and Jim would stop by Bart’s place and pick him up for their weekly outing. They would alternate between three places; Cracker Barrel, Bob Evans Restaurant or the Rehoboth Diner. I enjoyed these outings but wasn’t able to go out with them every Wednesday night until I moved down here. Once I moved to Delaware, I made arrangements to meet them at the designated restaurant for that week. It wasn’t too long before we encountered a problem. I would ask Bob where we were meeting, since Bob was driving Jim and Bart. Bob would say “we will meet at the Rehoboth Diner at 6 PM.” I would go to the Rehoboth Diner at the agreed upon time and wait for them. And I would wait. And wait. Six o’clock. I would wait another 15 minutes. Six fifteen. Still no Bob. Six thirty. No Bob. Where did they go? I thought I got my directions wrong. I would call Bob on his cell phone but he has told me he doesn’t know how to turn it on. The obvious question is why does he have it? He says “Jim knows how to turn it on.” When Bob and the crew didn’t appear at the Rehoboth Diner I decided to check Cracker Barrel. Yep, there they were, sitting at a table in Cracker Barrel. I dismissed this as a misunderstanding on my part on where we were to meet.
Now that I was living in Delaware, I could meet them every week. It quickly became obvious that Bob couldn’t remember where he told me we were going to meet. Sometimes he and the crew would be at the agreed upon place at six, more often than not he wouldn’t be there. After few more times of running up and down Rt. 1 wondering where they were eating, I decided that if they didn’t show up I would just go home. Then something else interesting happened. Bob would never call and ask “Where were you?” I let it go a week then I called the next week and asked “Where are we meeting this week?” I also asked where did they eat the previous week. He told me but never asked where I was. Now I’m thinking maybe they don’t want me along. Both Jim and Bart are none too fond of me for different reasons. Jim is a very insecure person who feels threatened by my friendship with Bob. Bart hates anyone who doesn’t subscribe to his Kool-Aid drinking Far Right views. You disagree with him when he's spouting off, and he will shout you down even if it is in public. He's not a pleasant person to be around. After several months of missed connections, I decided that it was time to discontinue my membership in the “Old Farts Night Out” club.
The accumulation of forgetfulness and unusual behavior from Bob was becoming too much to ignore. The time the three of us (Bill, me and Bob) went to the VA for our flue shots. Bob wanders off. The time the three of us went shopping at the Wal-Mart in Georgetown, Bob wanders off without saying a word. The time I was helping Bob research a missing CD. I gave him the address of the Comptroller of the Currency to write a letter. He couldn’t get the name right, kept saying “Currency Controller, Calculator of the Controller, Controller of the Dollar” and other versions of Comptroller of the Currency. I eventually wrote the letter for him. I asked him to sign it and mail it out. A few weeks later I asked him if he heard anything. He didn’t remember the letter. This particular episode had many more factors involved which I won’t go into here. I went with him to Wachovia Bank to help him recover his CD. I gave him the address of the Unclaimed Funds for the state of Pennsylvania (he had deposited his CD at PNB Bank in Philadelphia.) It was like pushing rope. I explain all this to him and I got the same vacant stare and hanging open mouth when I was showing him how to open an attachment on his e-mail. His brain wasn’t able to connect the dots. The lost, vacant stare. The slack jaw. No more the Bob that I used to know. Animated, joking, smiling, laughing. That Bob was gone.
I feel as if I’m losing a friend. I am losing a friend. The best analogy I can think of is an astronaut who is taking a space walk. He (or she) is tethered to the spaceship with a line. That line gets lose and the astronaut is slowly slipping out into the great void of space. We can see that astronaut but we can’t reach him. We extend our hand but his hand is out of reach, slipping slowly but surely further out of reach. We watch helplessly as the image of the astronaut gets smaller and smaller as he drifts farther out into space. Eventually the astronaut is gone, swallowed by the endless expanse of the universe. I’m losing my friend. He is slowly slipping away.
During the past several years I have lost friends. Some have moved on with their lives and not kept in touch. Others have become ill and died. This is the first friend I am losing to dementia. It is sad and I don’t know what to do. A part of me is hoping Bob will call me one day and say it was all a big practical joke. The Old Bob would do something like that. However, my heart tells me that the Old Bob is gone. He’s been replaced by this person with the vacant stare and slack jaw. The Old Bob that I knew is in there somewhere and I don’t know how to reach him. I fear that I have lost my friend.
To be continued.