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The Early Years

Dear Dementia,

I thought I’d see you coming more clearly but I was too far away to see you at all. You visited Dad first, just as we all expected – or least I assumed that we all expected you. I know I did. After all, I’d been trained to expect you since childhood. “Alzheimer’s runs in the family,” my mother would warn, adding with incrimination, “in all the men on your father’s side.”  My third-grade Sunday school teacher, Mr. Light (yes, that was his real name; I remember him clearly because he was missing part of one finger and was partial to staring contests), had recently assigned us chapter three in our textbook, which told the history of Passover. So through my young eyes, Al-Z visited our family just as Elijah had visited the town of our ancestors, spreading an ancient Egyptian plague.  But instead of passing over the homes of the Hightowers to spare their first-born sons as Elijah had, Al-Z targeted the Hightower families and eventually smote each and every son, regardless of birth order. As I grew older, my belief in Elijah faded, but the reality of Al-Z could not be denied.   

Somehow, through my mother’s eyes, Al-Z escaped responsibility for afflicting our immediate family, and instead her blame rested squarely on Dad’s shoulders. Later I would realize that this was just one of the bricks in the wall of hate that my mother, Meryl Claire, built to shield herself from my father, Garland Hightower.

 “You don’t need to worry so much, Belinda Jay, because so far only the men in the family have Alzheimer’s. And by the time you’re old enough, Charles Kay, there might be a cure,” Mom would say matter-of-factly to me and my brother.  And that would be the end of that.

Charles Kay is two years older than me. He has always hated his middle name because it’s too girly. When were young, I offered to switch middle names with him; even though “Jay” is boy’s name, it has never bothered me to own it. Mom never understood Charles’s distress, and what she didn’t understand she simply ignored, buried behind bricks in her wall. Oh the agony he would swallow when she called him Charles Kay in front of his peers—especially in front of girls! Privately, he would beg Mom to simply call him Charles, or Charlie, or even Chuck (after all, being compared to Skipper Chuck was far less damaging than than being called a girl!). But Mom has never once been able to say “Charles” without immediately uttering “Kay.” She is just that way. Perhaps it is because her mother insisted on using her middle name; Nana always called her Meryl Claire.  In high school, when we read The Once and Future King, I tried to comfort my brother by pointing out that King Arthur’s brother shared the name Kay; he was manly, wasn’t he? But by then, Charles didn’t seem to care anymore.  He’d found comfort for all that ailed him with another being that lured her victims into her fragrant green Mist, one he could beckon at will as long as he had the money:  dear sweet Mary Jane.

By the time Al-Z began to visit Dad, Charles and I had moved away and had families of our own. Charles stayed in Florida but lived two and half hours north in an old house near the beach with his daughter Elise. I moved first to New York City, where I met my husband Jerry, and together we headed west to a small mountain town in Colorado to start our family. When my kids were young, we would trek down to Florida to visit, but when Ali was 5 and Ethan turned 3 and airfare literally skyrocketed, it became more practical for Meryl Claire and Garland to visit us out west instead. Twice a year, for each grandchild’s birthday, Meryl Claire and Garland would spend a couple weeks in a nearby hotel. Soon they bought a second home only a three-hour drive away in Taos, where eventually they hoped to retire, and we were able to fit in a third visit with them there during winter break.

Before Garland strayed too far into the Mist, he had been his own boss—a Willy Loman salesman minus the suicide attempts. Oh he had been quite successful for many years, but like Willy, he harbored delusions of grandeur and wealth, and the “friends” who surrounded him were just charlatans taking him for a ride.  Meryl Claire bought into Garland’s visions even before they were married 52 years ago and has kept her eyes squeezed shut ever since no matter how fiercely reality has tried to pry them open.

Garland’s type-A personality and practiced salesmanship were perfect camouflage for Al-Z in the beginning. In those early years, a light Mist surrounded Garland like the cloud of dirt that follows Pig-Pen, and it enveloped everyone in its path.  By rote, he’d greet anyone with a big smile and a cheerful, “Hiya. Good to see you again! You’re looking great young man/lady!”  He’d heartily shake hands and clap the person on the back, cloaking his acquaintance in his Mist. His compliments and boisterous laugh would instantly mask the need to remember anyone’s name.

His cover-up even worked on me. He didn’t need to remember his grandchildren’s names when he could just as seamlessly say, “How’s my little lady, doing?” or “So what have you been up to, young man? Playing any sports?” Because I’d heard him speak this way for a lifetime, it did not occur to me that his memory was slipping; I, too, was cloaked in and oblivious to the Mist.  

It didn’t help that Meryl Claire refused to open her eyes; the world looked better against the backdrop of her own eyelids. She also didn’t want anyone else to notice you, Dear Dementia. If she acknowledged your presence, admitted that she recognized Al-Z when he visited, then she would be flawed; the rest of the world would see her imperfections and think less of her. She would do whatever it takes to prevent anyone or anything from puncturing the upper-class, kept-woman bubble in which she lived. And so she furiously added more bricks to the wall that surrounded and protected her, covering for Garland whenever she she saw a need. Charles Kay and I were privy only to her blood-tinged, rosy lidded outlook.

 Al-Z was particularly sly in Garland’s office. He sucked Garland’s entire staff into the Mist and fitted them with custom lenses of Denial so that even when they were away from Garland and were out of the Mist's reach, they were unable to admit the truth: that their boss was incapable of continuing the business and their jobs were on the line. Instead, the staff ran Garland’s business for him, asking Garland to sign on the dotted line when necessary, and they were able to keep their jobs alive for nearly a decade longer.  Garland continued to drive to work and earn a good living while Meryl Claire stayed at home in the comfort of her bubble and regularly ordered whatever caught her fancy on the Home Shopping Network.

Every time I called, the report was positive. My parents seemed to be enjoying life. Business was good; they took a trip to Asia with another couple; and they enjoyed their second home in Taos.

So how in Dementia’s name, could I see you?

May the next generation conquer you, Dear Dementia.

With love,

Belinda Jay