She was a tiny woman, not even 5’ tall. But what she lacked in stature, she more than made up for in grit and determination. The youngest of six children, Maggie married the love of her life, Henry Vineyard, and became a farmer’s wife and mother to one son and four daughters. Henry had forgotten how to read since he quit school after the fourth grade to help his father work their farm. Maggie was a God-fearing woman who read the Bible to Henry every day. Together, they worked hard raising their family and the best tobacco crop they could every year.
Their children grew up, got married and started families of their own. Years later, Maggie started forgetting things. Her behavior changed and the family’s fears were realized when they learned it was Alzheimer’s. Maggie’s father Ike Ramsey also had Alzheimer’s, although they didn’t call it that in those days. They said Ike had gotten senile and since he had bootlegged whiskey for years, they called him ‘Crazy Ike’. No one could tell for sure whether his erratic behavior was from the Alzheimer’s or too much whiskey.
One day, Ike was burning sage grass on the farm and the blaze got out of control. As the smoke rose above the trees, neighbors from near and far rushed over with buckets of water to help put out the fire. But Ike just slapped his hand against his leg and yelled out, “Let ‘er burn! Let ‘er burn!”
Maggie’s children cared for their mother, but eventually, the disease progressed to the point that it became dangerous for her to stay on the farm. She would forget to turn off the stove or she’d wander off from their farmhouse. Her family put her in a nursing home and decorated her room with her favorite pictures and handmade quilts. Maggie grew so accustomed to her new surroundings that eventually, she thought she was living in her home. One of the residents down the hall had a habit of taking all his clothes off and walking around in his birthday suit. One day, he disrobed and walked right past Maggie. She was so incensed that anyone would walk around naked in her own home, that she slapped his bare bottom with her hand to let him know she was displeased.
Thankfully, there is a lighter side of dementia. Sometimes a person will say or do something so hilarious, it’s hard to keep a straight face.
Years ago, Grace Arbor was holding a special veteran’s day celebration to honor all who served their country. A band played military tunes while everyone feasted on a special lunch. I left work early that day to join Dad for the program and I wore an Old Navy tee-shirt with the American flag on the front. Dad and I sat at a table with other men who had also served in the military. One of them looked at me and my shirt and asked, “Are you in the navy?” We told him yes, I was in the Old Navy.
People with Alzheimer’s have their own truth. And there’s no need to mess with it. A few years ago, Dad was having an off day at Grace Arbor so I drove over to pick him up early and take him to the doctor. When I arrived, he was finishing lunch while a sweet woman sat across from him enjoying her dessert. I sat down beside Dad and this woman took a forkful of brownie, pointed it at me and said, “I grow these in my garden.” All I could say was, “I would love to have a garden like yours!”
My Father has his own share of moments when he’ll say or do something that makes us chuckle. Last week, he had finished watching a BBC documentary so I said, “Are you watching those Alaskan bears?”
He pointed down the hall and said, “Yeah, I just saw one down there.”
These moments are gifts from God. They relieve stress and keep caregivers from drowning in the mindless minutia of everyday living. And when one of these moments comes along, we treasure it.
My Father served in the Air Force in the early 1960’s during the Cold War. He trained in Biloxi, Mississippi and was stationed at Ramstein Air Force base in Germany. One evening, my parents and I were watching a tv show about America’s tense encounter with Cuba during the Bay of Pigs. Dad piped up and said with a serious face, “We shot canons into Cuba when that happened! I was in Mississippi during the Bay of Pigs.”
There was no need to correct him. It was his truth, so we muffled our laughter and let it out when he wasn’t in the room.
Like anyone, Dad has a few favorite programs that he loves to watch. We’ll record them and play them for him while we’re in the next room. One afternoon, a program had just finished and the picture was frozen on the tv screen. Dad didn’t realize it was the end of a recording. About that time, Mom walked into the room and looked at the screen to find a picture of a man with his mouth open.
Dad looked up at her and said, “I think he forgot what he was going to say!”