Sunday, November 23, 2014

The making of an October hero

Today’s “Me” generation may snicker at the possibility, but I happen to believe that October relational stories, that small but bountiful pond where I cast my storytelling nets, provide the necessary ingredients for warm and satisfying tales of late-life relationships gone right---age-appropriate examples of geriatric adolescence, offering fortunate outcomes for deserving couples. In my own very biased eyes several of the Tanner Chronicle stories I tell fit that “warm and satisfying” description. But then again, some do not.
It was a video clip I posted last week about end-of-life issues, the ones we would prefer to avoid, that reminded me of Leona Peck’s harsh Alzheimer’s trials in Best Friends and Promises---and how Aaron Peck struggled to deal with his wife’s life-changing illness. I can remember when it first dawned on me that Aaron and Leona’s journey was leading me toward new and sometimes troubling places I had never visited before. In the course of writing a pair of more or less “happily-ever-after” stories there had been no need to ask myself the obvious question. Who would read something as realistic, some would say “dark,” as the Pecks’ story?
I stumbled around a while searching for an answer to that question, before concluding that even my most warm and fuzzy tales were not likely to attract much of a readership. Who even knew they were out there? Besides, October relational stories were not exactly mainstream. Yet I kept writing them---because they were the stories I wanted to tell. In that case, why not give myself permission to tell a less-comforting story, one that depicts a troubling, but very real side of October life? After all, if I am writing to please myself, why not tell it the way I want?
In fact, Best Friends and Promises is not the story of Leona’s sad descent into Alzheimer’s. Instead, her distressing decline serves as the backdrop for Aaron’s befuddled “coping”---his struggle to adapt to a frightening new reality. The scenes that follow depict his growing awareness of a world gone terribly wrong. and set the stage for his tentative efforts to make sense of it and carry on. They are not meant to be pleasant reading---simply realistic.

 * * *

Aaron had been busy in the garage, having vowed to finally bring order to his cluttered work bench, when Leona stopped by to say she was off to pick up a few things at the store. By the time he came back inside she had been gone nearly an hour. That was enough to trigger his concern. Something was not right. Stepping out on the front porch he scanned the sidewalk in both directions, looking for her approach. 
Back at the kitchen table he drained his coffee and told himself there was no reason to worry. Yet try as he might he could not relax. Ten anxious minutes later he stopped pretending. Slipping on his jacket he started off on the two block walk to the shopping mall that fronted Center Street. For the first block he proceeded at a moderate pace. By the time he reached the mall’s parking lot he was moving faster, striding in time with his growing sense of urgency.
Inside the sprawling supermarket he paused, leaning against a row of nested shopping carts to get his bearings. It was not the short walk that had his heart racing, but a fearful anxiety he could not will away. Closing his eyes, he waited for the queasy lightheadedness to pass. Then, with a deep breath, he started toward the daunting maze of aisles that crisscrossed the store.
For fifteen minutes Aaron hurried from aisle to aisle, looking desperately for the slightly stooped, gray-haired woman who could be his Leona. Pacing the width and length of the mega-store his stride quicken and his panicked thoughts grew more demanding  Finally he realized there was no reason to continue. She was not there.
Returning to the back of the store he approached the glass-enclosed Manager’s cubicle, set on a raised platform above the main floor. There he tapped on the glass door.
The chunky gray-haired man at the cluttered desk looked up, then rolled his chair to the door. “Can I help you, sir?”
“My wife. She’s lost. I can’t find her anywhere. She’s just gone.” Aaron's words came in a rush, matched by his anxious frown. “Can you help me?”
“Please, sir. Calm down.” The Manager stepped down from his cubicle to stand beside the obviously distraught old man. “Your wife is lost? Here in the store?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve looked everywhere, but I can’t find her. She must be somewhere else.”
“Let me explain, sir.” The man’s hand was on Aaron’s shoulder. “The store’s security team can only help if she’s here in the store. The shopping mall company has their own people. But they spend most of their time securing the parking areas and warehouses. They probably wouldn’t be much help in locating a missing person.”
“What can I do? I have to find her.”
“If you’re sure she’s not here in the building, I suggest you call 911. Perhaps they could help.”
Outside, in front of the store, Aaron sat down on a display of sacked lawn fertilizer and took the cell phone from his pocket to dial 911. “I want to report a missing person,” he explained when the operator answered. “My wife. She’s gone. I don’t know what to do.”
In a matter of minutes the pleasantly efficient Emergency Operator had managed to calm her frantic caller, assemble the information and description he provided, and assure him that city police patrols would be alerted at once.
“I suppose that’s all you can do,” Aaron said, taking some comfort in knowing that others would be looking too. “Anyway, I’ll be walking through the rest of the stores in the mall. Maybe she went window shopping.”
“Please keep your phone turned on, so we can reach you.” He appreciated the hint of concern in the operator’s voice. She was probably trained to sound that way. Still, it helped at a time like that.
“Please find her. That’s all. Just find her.” Aaron wiped at the tears with his sleeve, closed the phone, and started toward the pharmacy next door. For the next half hour he moved mechanically from one store to the next, while his panicked distress mounted, filling his thoughts with mind-numbing questions. Where she was? Why couldn’t he find her? What could have happened? His hands were shaking and it was becoming harder to concentrate.


Through that summer and into the autumn the changes in Leona’s behavior continued---some subtle, others more dramatic. At home coded locks and magnetic signal alarms were installed on exterior doors. Within the walls of her thus-secured home Leona Peck was free to roam at will, often pacing nervously from room to room, as if looking for something she had misplaced. In the course of her random wanderings she sometimes walked right past Aaron without offering the slightest hint that she was aware of his presence.
Not surprisingly the kitchen was one of her favored destination. How many times had he found her there---staring blankly at the mixing bowls, utensils, and assorted ingredients she had spread out on the counter? She might stand there for minutes, in what had always been her most comfortable surroundings, appraising those vaguely familiar elements, yet making no effort to put them to use. Finally, with a resigned shrug, she would turn and shuffle off to the front of the house.
On other occasions Leona simply disappeared, creating anxious moments for Aaron---at least until he learned to look for her in the darkness of the narrow walk-in hall closet. He would find her there, sitting silently on an empty suitcase, withdrawing from an all-too-confusing world. Still, as frightening as those episodes were, even worse were the unpredictable outbursts of angry agitation, when her frustration boiled over and she appeared unwilling to accept her diminished universe. In those moments of irrational flailing Aaron could scarcely imagine what demons possessed her.
Surprisingly, however, some connections remained, still accessible to her retreating memory. “See you later, alligator” never failed to elicit her predictable “After while, crocodile,” complete with a childlike grin. It was more than Aaron could comprehend. Their daughters, Leona’s own flesh and blood, had become unrecognizable strangers. Yet “after while crocodile” was still within reach.

* * *

Aaron Peck had no words to wipe away his painful dejection on that January morning, no way to escape the disgust he felt for himself as he descended the front steps of the Davies Care Center. Moments before he had left Leona sitting by herself in the sterile silence of the facility’s day room. Her blank, unknowing gaze would haunt him for days. Although there was no hint that she had heard them, his parting words had been a promise to return the next day and every day. He would not leave her alone in that friendly, but foreign place.
He spent that afternoon at home, walking nervously from room to room, surrounded by still fresh memories of what had always been “their” home. More than once he paused to weigh that affirming past against the forbidding future Dr. 
Flescher had described, asking himself again if that was where their long-ago promises to each other were meant to lead them. For so long he had relied on Leona’s supporting presence. Now, standing before the ornate fireplace mantel that had been her pride and joy, it felt as though all that was good in his life had been defined by their partnership. Without her, what would there be but emptiness?

* * * 

Every day Aaron was reminded of how much he missed her presence and the subtle interactions they had shared---the soft touches in passing, seemingly unnoticed smiles, even the unspoken aggravation she could communicate with the simple raising of an eyebrow.
One winter afternoon, in a particularly introspective moment, he reflected on how much of their relationship had been played out below the surface---those times when their verbal interaction was little more than redundant phrases and muttered code words, each carrying a long-established significance, conveying volumes of meaning in a handful of syllables. It hurt, knowing that the personal dialect which had served them so well had ceased to be. The way they had communicated their love and caring was no longer effective, as though he was the last person left who spoke their dying language.

There you have it, thumbnail sketches of life lived in the hard lane---dealing with one of the harshest ordeals a long and loving relationship can face. If it makes for uncomfortable reading, you can imagine how depressing it would be to live out. It also begs the question---how does someone in Aaron Peck’s shoes carry on?
That brings us to the heart of Best Friends and Promises, which I describe as warm and hopeful, often frustrating, and very human. The story follows Aaron’s well-intentioned and sometimes misguided efforts to deal with the obstacles life has put in his way. Along the way he comes face to face with yet another October truth, “happy endings” are a relative thing---sometimes a matter of settling for modest results, while relying on coping skills Aaron is not sure he possesses. It will not be easy, but cope he must. How else can he deal with a future built on little more than best friends and promises. His is a story of fighting October battles, and emerging as an October hero.
Finally, I will close with a personal observation, which in turn leads to a special request. The post I mentioned above, about communicating with an Alzheimer’s father, was “Shared” by several of you, which I was glad to see since it contained worthwhile advice. That sharing also enabled us to reach many more readers than usual. Hopefully you are not surprised to learn that I would like to expand the readership of these scribblings. 
So when, or if, you come across a particularly interesting or thoughtful post I encourage you to “Like” it and/or “Share” it with anyone you think might be interested. And of course, if you would like to add your voice to the conversation I hope you will take time to leave a “Comment” below. Taken together, those modest efforts are probably the most effective way to spread the October Years message. I thank you in advance for any such help. 

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