I’ve just finished Connie Mae Fowler’s five-day writers’ workshop in St Augustine.click The best part was the workshop sessions and new writer friends.The second best part was having the hotel room to myself.
The farewell dinner was last night. About 6:30 in the morning I wake to a steady rain. I get dressed. I pay attention when I put my cell phone in its holster, because the last five days I’ve kept it silenced in my purse. Methodically, I pack up each area - the bathroom, refrigerator, closet, dresser, desk, bedside table. Nobody distracts me with “Grandma, can I go get a donut?” “Liz, have you seen my glasses?” With everything packed I go through the room one more time, to be sure I haven’t left anything. Then I load the car.
Parking in St Augustine has taken all my cash, so I drive a couple of miles to Publix to get money for a housekeeping tip. I buy a sandwich for the road. I leave the tip, check out, grab a banana from the buffet, and head home through the driving rain.
The thick, dark clouds are breaking up in the sky to the west, and by the time I reach US 1 the rain is slowing. I leave the town behind, and now I’m on 207, a fast secondary road with trees, egrets, and puddles on both sides. There is little traffic. I am entirely happy; the workshop revived my flagging writer, giving me energy, confidence, determination. I’ve made two decisions. I will put writing first every morning, and make no dates before 11. I will no longer say, “I’m retired,” but “I’m a writer.”
'O Happy Day' is playing on the CD player. I think I’ll call Joe, share my happiness. I reach for the phone. It’s not in the zipper pocket of my purse. It’s not anywhere in my purse. I feel my jeans pockets, my shirt pocket. Nope. I review all my packing, and I’m puzzled. I remember turning off the alarm - is it possible I left it on the bedside table?
I pull over on the shoulder, trucks whizzing by as I get out to search. Passenger seat and floor, tote bag with notebooks, books, and magazines, computer case with a zillion compartments, center console, suitcase, under the seats. Nothing. And nothing to do but drive back to the motel. I consider calling to ask, but of course...
I’m proud that I’ve stayed calm, not frantic - it helps that I left early so there’s no worry about getting to my 11:00 therapist appointment in Gainesville.
The worry begins after the friendly desk clerk has given me a new key card, after I’ve methodically searched each area of the room, looked in all the drawers and under all the furniture, after I’ve stripped the bed, after I’ve returned to the buffet and asked the woman who’s making new coffee if she's seen my phone. Back to the car, a more careful search with no trucks whizzing by two feet from my butt. I empty each bag, check the pockets in all the dirty clothes, move both seats and feel around under them. By now I know I’m repeating myself, hoping magic will put the phone where it wasn’t. I pat my jeans pockets, then my shirt pocket, and my hand bumps the cell phone belt.
Such a rush of relief. Then the real worry begins. By the time I reach the place where I pulled over, an hour after my first departure, I’m near tears. This is no short-term memory loss. This isn’t like the comical incident of dressing a salad in a colander click, or locking my keys in the car.click. I paid attention when I stowed my phone, but with all the searching, all the thinking about what I had done, I didn’t remember it.
The Muumuus and I joke about senior moments and brain farts, cozy and comfortable in our aging together. This wasn’t a moment; it was an hour.
Now my thoughts are flying. Alzheimers. Dementia. Researchers say about 1 out of 8 people over 65 suffers from dementia. I’m afraid to tell Joe, afraid tell Dr. Lynne, my therapist. I have told Joe that when I don’t know him anymore he can put me in a nursing home and divorce me, but he has to visit regularly to make sure I’m well cared for.
I already have a strategy for my keys, and almost always put them in the basket by the door. Now I need a strategy for my glasses and phone too, and a mental checklist whenever I leave the house. I will have to establish compulsive habits. I must be present in every moment, pay attention to the now.
MY KEYS ARE HERE
But if I can’t let my mind wander, how will I write? Half the writing happens in my head when I’m cooking or cleaning house, swimming or walking. Just when my writer has come alive again, my mind starts to melt. It will only get worse. I will call my doctor and have the annual checkup that was due in July, ask for a referral for a neurological workup. There is a drug that can slow the progress of Alzheimers; best catch it early.
Last night I read a New Yorker piece about Phillip Roth and his friends. Roth decided to give up writing fiction at 78. “It’s hard to remember from day to day what you’ve done.” In Iris, the movie about Iris Murdoch, there is a scene where, as Alzheimers advances, she puts down her pen because she cannot remember words.
PHILIP ROTH IMAGE:NYTIMES.COM IRIS MURDOCH IMAGE:TELEGRAPH.CO.UK
I arrive at Dr Lynne’s with ten minutes to spare. We’ve been dealing with an old trauma, so that I can put it behind me. But this is too urgent; my fear is right at the surface. So we plunge in. She has theories about memory loss, information about how it works. My story doesn’t worry her, and so I worry less. That night I tell Joe about it. He understands my fear, but thinks it’s like looking all over the house for his glasses when they are on his head. I see his point and feel better. But I still want an assessment.
This morning in the paper, two items. Glory glory, Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. (In a New Yorker interview a year ago she said she would probably stop writing because “I’m eighty-one, losing names or words in a commonplace way.”) And Julie Samples, a graduate student at the University of Florida, has just published a pilot study in the Journal of Neurological Sciences.
The first deterioration in Alzheimer’s is often in the olfactory nerve, and begins on the left side of the brain. Julie put a dab of peanut butter on the end of a ruler, and brought it closer to each nostril until the person could detect the smell. She and her advisor report, “If they can smell it far away it means that nerve is working. If you have to bring it all the way up to the nose it means it’s not working as well...We were blown away with what we saw...The right nostril was normal, and the left had impairment” in Alzheimers patients but none of the other subjects.
You know I went straight to the peanut butter jar. I put a bit on the end of a knife, blocked each nostril, and sniffed. Both my nostrils (and hence my brain?) worked just fine, smelling the peanut butter from about eight inches away. When I used the whole jar, I could smell it from a couple of feet away. I suppose I will mention this to my doctor when I get around to my so-called annual physical. And maybe I’ll ask for an assessment. But I am greatly reassured.
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