The Fall

I fell. I fell on a boat ramp that had jagged rows of bumpy concrete intended to prevent falling. I gripped the end of the kayak in my right hand, faced up the ramp like I had done so often before, and waited for my husband, Howard, to give the signal that he was lifting the other end and we should walk the kayak up the ramp. He signaled, I pulled hard, and then I fell.

We had been kayaking along the shore of Islamorada in a double-seat, heavy plastic sea kayak. We started from the old resort where we had stayed nearly every year for thirty years. There was just the two of us now, our kids were grown, so we stayed in the resort’s smallest room, in the back near busy U.S. 1, the only highway in the Florida Keys. I missed the old days when we drove from Wisconsin over spring break with our carload of children. Then we stayed in the front unit, a cabin with a sliding glass door across the entire side facing the Florida Bay. After our first day there, the concrete stoop by the cabin door would be littered with snorkel gear, swim fins, and fishing poles with tangled lines. Our kids ran in and out of the ocean like they’d been born there.

Our family’s history in this place is long and deep. Howard had stayed in the same cabin with his family when he was a child and had told the story a dozen times of breaking his arm falling off the roof of the adjoining building playing tag with the owner’s kids. His grandmother, an immigrant from Ukraine, made gefilte fish from their daily catch. Her name was Bertha, but Howard called her Moy. When we stayed in the same cabin years later, I could imagine Moy latching an old cast iron meat grinder to the side of the kitchen counter and grinding snapper and yellowtail into the paste that is gefilte fish. All of this history, his and ours, made this small, old-fashioned Florida Keys resort a beloved place for me, a place I yearned for quietly nearly all the time but visited only every couple of years now that it was just the two of us.

The kayaking before the fall was smooth and almost effortless. It was hot, though, and I wished I’d brought a water bottle. The water was still except for soft lobs from the powerful wakes of speeding fishing boats far out in the bay. We paddled past old Keys houses and new mansions, sometimes a dog would run to the end of a dock to bark at us. We looked for the parrot fish and barracuda that we often saw when we snorkeled, but the water seemed empty, like everything had left to find deeper, cooler places.

We watched a helicopter hovering over houses on shore. It was so close to earth that I worried it would crash. I thought maybe there was an escaped criminal. The copter’s blade- slapping roar alarmed me, maybe because it was all I could hear. Knowing we would be on the water, I’d taken off my hearing aid and the receiver for my cochlear implant Without them, I was deaf except for the helicopter noise which rattled me with its loudness.

We turned around about two miles down the shore. We paddled back, next to the resort’s dock and then to the base of the boat ramp. I got out in waist deep water and steadied the kayak for Howard to negotiate getting out. We positioned the kayak to hoist out of the water, so we could put it back in its storage place along the bamboo fence.

And then I fell. It hurt. It hurt in the shocking, painful way that it hurt when I fell off my bike as a kid skidding around a corner on the dirt road near our house, the scrapes on my elbows and knees thick with gravel. Falling stunned me like I had suddenly become infirm, unable to do the simple thing of bringing a kayak out of the water. I gathered myself, stood up, and looked over my shoulder at Howard, “It’s just too heavy for me.” He nodded, shrugged as if to say, “no big deal.”

Two young men who had been watching came to help him with the kayak. Still dazed, I walked across the boat ramp, up a small hill, and sat in a white plastic chair at the resort’s little tiki hut where I’d sat a hundred times reading The Miami Herald and drinking Bustelo, watching my kids fishing or swimming. Sitting there felt like sitting in my living room, it was that familiar. Except now it wasn’t.

I sat still with my hands folded in my lap like I was at church waiting for the homily.  Howard walked by taking the life preservers and paddles back to the resort office. He disappeared, and I imagined him having a nice chat with the lady at the desk. Maybe he was telling her about the helicopter. I put my head on the table.

A man and a woman on their way to the dock looked at me concerned, they mouthed the words “Are you alright?” and I nodded yes, I was fine, and put my head back down on the table, looking at the door of the resort office, praying that it would open soon, and Howard would come back. I couldn’t talk to anyone else. They would ask me questions I couldn’t answer. He was the only person I could understand when I didn’t have my hearing equipment, when I was deaf. We had our own language, hand signals and lip reading. I could tell him I was in trouble with just my eyes if he would only come back.

When Howard finally returned, he suggested we move to better lounge chairs for a while and enjoy the sun. He doesn’t know I’m hurt, I thought. “No, no. I’m really sick,” I mouthed, not wanting anyone to hear me. Somehow, it was important for only him to know. He looked at me, baffled, and then called out for someone to call 911. Later, he said I was gurgling when I talked, and my eyes were glazed and seeming to roll up in my head. I remember it being strange that he was so concerned but trying hard to look nonchalant, gesturing to other resort guests to move them to action but keeping his eyes on me all the while. I sank into the chair and surrendered myself to his care. Everything would be all right now that he was here.

From nowhere, a young, handsome Latino man took my wrist and felt my pulse. He decided I should lie down on a lounge chair and he and Howard pulled one over. Then he put his arms around my waist and hoisted me from my plastic chair to the lounge chair and felt my pulse again. “Her blood pressure is very low,” he said. I heard him although I didn’t; his lips were easy to read. He smoothed my hair off my forehead. He looked in my eyes and stroked my face, first one cheek with the palm of his hand, then the other with the back of his hand. He smiled at me, nodded gently, and kept stroking my face. I felt like his dying mother, his beloved mother, his touch was so tender. Later, I learned he was a pharmacist from Peru. Did he learn to be so kind in pharmacy school, so reassuring and gentle or had his mother taught him before she died? Of course, I didn’t know if his mother had died. I was only guessing from his touch that she might have.

The EMTs came with their boxes. One with a full sleeve of tattoos took my blood pressure and inspected my left arm which by then was throbbing. It wasn’t broken but it hurt in a powerful way and seemed to be swelling while I watched. The EMTs had me drink water and stand up, then shepherded me to our tiny room where I lie on the white comforter and looked out the window, a plastic bag full of ice on my elbow. They never said what was wrong with me, just that I needed to rest, and I’d be okay.

When I got up after a few hours, there were tiny drops of blood on the sheets, but I felt better, dreamy, though, like a person feels after an accident, delicate, fragile, adrift. Old and unwell but still living. I missed being robust, missed being a person who could haul a kayak out of the water.

Hours later, we decided to go for a drive. Traveling up and down U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys is what people do. It’s about seeing both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, the weightlessness of speeding over bridges, white fishing boats below, making out dolphins in the distance, the possibility and freedom of it all. The drive would be a healing thing, I knew that from experience.

Before we left, we saw a group of people near the resort office. On his knees trying to entice a squirrel with small pieces of bread was the pharmacist. I wanted to thank him, so we moved near the group to watch and as we did, the squirrel started to eat out of the pharmacist’s hand. A woman, maybe his girlfriend, took pictures on her phone. The squirrel was perched in the bougainvillea, red flowers framing his tiny, knowing face. It was entrancing, and I wondered if it was the pharmacist’s magic or the squirrel’s habit that brought them so close together.            

“Sir,” Howard said. The pharmacist looked up, then recognized me as the woman with the weak pulse. He reached out and I hugged him. “Thank you for being so kind,” I said, remembering how he had stroked my face when I was so ill. He asked how I was feeling and for the first time I heard his soft Spanish accent. I told him my arm ached a little and he took my arm in both hands and stroked it softly like it was a bundle of orchids that would wilt with too harsh a touch.

We said goodbye and got in our car for our drive down the Keys. In the rear-view mirror, I saw the pharmacist walking with his friends down to the dock. They were laughing and chatting, luckiness and gladness dancing around them like fireflies.

Once Upon a Time

My friend of forty years laughed and said “Did you ever think 35 years ago that we’d be talking about who has the Alzheimer’s gene?” to which I answered, “No, we were always talking about sex,” which was true because we spent a fair amount of time behaving badly and then lamenting with each other before and after swimming very early morning laps in a cold pool where we went religiously but pointlessly, it all being part of her plan for us to avoid aging, a condition so abstract and far away as to be part of a fairy tale we only partly believed.

Risky Business

Alzheimer’s Disease is just drenched in stigma. It’s the leprosy of our time, the worst possible thing that could happen. Your hands will fall off, your nose, parts of you will drop to the ground, strewn about the landscape, and people will run away when they see you coming. No, they won’t even look at you, won’t see you because you’ll be living on an island that spares them the trouble.

Yes. Alzheimer’s has that kind of stigma. Mega-stigma.

It has so much stigma that, after each sentence, I want to say “I don’t have Alzheimer’s.” I don’t want anyone thinking my every lost key or forgotten name is a symptom in search of a disease. I’m as sharp as they make ’em, don’t you know.

Today, I got an email from a national Alzheimer’s prevention registry. This is something that I signed up for in one of my over-zealous moments about how I should do more about Alzheimer’s Disease because it killed my mother.

Participation in the registry begins with submitting a DNA test. This is so, down the road, the registry can match a person with a study or drug trial that, for instance, compares outcomes for people predisposed to Alzheimer’s to those not so unfortunate.

It’s all about the APOE4 gene. If you have it, your chances of developing Alzheimer’s Disease later in life are way higher than people who have APOE2 or APOE3. Way higher. I’d say radioactive but that would sound hysterical and that’s uncalled for this early in the game.

So I don’t know if I have the APOE4 gene but the registry folks do. I gave them my DNA, remember? And they’ll tell me if I decide to participate in the study described in the email. Wait, let me clarify. They’ll tell me if I have the high risk gene if I want them to.

I’m thinking about it.

A Handful of Lemons: Seven Things I’ve Learned So Far in 2019

Your kids go back to the places you took them years ago but the places aren’t as special as they remember. They’re worn out, faded, smaller than their recollections and they are disappointed. You’re not surprised. No place keeps the glow it had when both the parents and the kids were young.

If people are in a certain mood, say they’re tired or frustrated, any suggestion you make will be taken as criticism. Most people know this but find it irresistible to weigh in on every topic. I’m hoping age brings me wisdom on this habit. As a mentor once told me, “You don’t have to say everything you know.”

A snow day is one of life’s enduring gifts. As a friend of mine once said, “I am always good with not doing things.” I love rescheduled meetings, cancelled classes, closed buildings. It’s like instant dread removal, not that I dread that many things but I dread a fair share of them for no particular reason. A snow day is totally dread-free. Like a pond with no weeds.

The lecture reflex in some folks is like a steel trap around a possum’s leg. Nowhere is this truer than on social media where an offhand remark can spark a torrent of annotated analysis as if the target hadn’t him or herself ever read a newspaper or thought a thought larger than cookie crumb. Remember the sage advice: “You don’t have to say everything you know.”

Marie Kondo. Two things here: 1) getting rid of stuff you don’t love (things that don’t ‘spark joy’; and 2) folding. Plus her bangs and tiny skirts make her fascinating, so doll-like but obviously human and quite rich. I’ve been ditching a lot of stuff I don’t love, using something of an expansive definition so it isn’t just stuff.

Overcoming the first moment of something is a huge deal. For instance, early tomorrow morning I’m going to volunteer at a new homeless warming room. So all day I’ve been obsessing about what door I should go in. This is nuts because if it isn’t one door, it would be another. But the right door is a metaphor for doing something new. But once I find the door, it will all be cool.

Research says there’s a likely connection between gum disease and Alzheimer’s. It’s chilling really to think that lackadaisical flossing could bring such a gargantuan punishment. You can’t get all those skipped nights back, you just have to sit your old self down and wait to see what happens. This is a bummer after I had worked so hard on having a regret-free life.

Unbeknownst to Me

My dog has a dent in her head about two inches long and an inch wide and I never saw it before the vet pointed it out this morning.

“She has partial facial paralysis,” he said, adding that was why her left eye was red and oozing. She couldn’t completely close her eye so it was dry and irritated. The facial paralysis meant that the unused muscle on the left side of her face had atrophied, hence the dent.

I’ve lived with this dog for 14 years. She lies near me pretty much wherever I am. I talk to her, I pet her beautiful head, I hold her face in my hands. I never saw her dent.

Is this how it happens?

You think everything is fine, life is okay, adequate, maybe not spectacular, but fine, and you meet up with someone who hasn’t seen you for a long time and they right away notice the massive dent in your head?

I’m afraid to go out.

Old Gal, Young Dog

I’m writing this standing up at the counter in the kitchen.

My new dog, Romeo, known mostly at Romy, is sitting on the rug behind me waiting for me to recognize what a good boy he’s being by not attacking the very senior dog, Minnie, that is his housemate or, as the Humane Society labeled her, the ‘resident dog.’

Over the past few days, the resident dog has been getting mighty irked. And because she is a torn ACL survivor and old as the hills, she can’t abide leaping and jumping from some shelter puppy, an Alabama cur, no less, that the people decided to bring home one day,

So far, ignoring Romy while he sits quietly behind me waiting for me to turn around to give him a piece of kibble is working. He’s gone from mad attacker to mellow fellow in about ten minutes. I just have to keep standing up and having kibble in my pocket – a lot like having a baby around holding life ransom for some Cheerios. I know the drill.

A few weeks ago, I met a woman with a beautiful German Shepherd, the one whose name in Lakota meant ‘Soup Dog’ and she mentioned that she intended to adopt more dogs – but only senior dogs – because, you know, we’re seniors. That seemed wise enough – old people, old dogs, everybody resting and reminiscing. And I liked the idea of it. Until we went to the Humane Society and Romeo sat there wagging his hacked off tail.

We could have shuffled with another old dog on long walks around the block, administered meds every morning and night, and been regulars at the vet. Hospice care, we would’ve been fabulous hospice care folks, kind of greasing the skids for our own inevitable slip and slide out the door. On the job training.

Having a very young dog is taxing.

This morning he chewed through his leash while he was tethered to a loop on my jeans while I cooked breakfast. Then he bit through the back-up leash after a stint at the dog park. He is very busy, galloping when a trot would do, being too much a lot of the time like people can be too much without having any self-awareness. He throws himself into his kibble, the car, other dogs, and people. Last week he took a running leap into the lap of a stranger at the dog park, a guy who just seconds before was drinking coffee and chatting with his friend on a park bench.

But he is sweet and loving in that way that rambunctious kids can be – taking a bite out of your shoulder because they love you so much and then being surprised because you find it distressing.

So I have cast my lot with this young crazy dog. I aim to make him mine or die trying.

Pray for me, though, because it can get wild around here.

Sallie’s Funeral

I went to Sallie’s funeral today.

It was in a very old Episcopal church downtown, the kind where you need to leave your coat on because the heat, what there is of it, will rise to the very top of the vaulted ceiling and leave you there like you are sitting on a park bench.

The hymnals were from 1984 which is fine, really, because how many hymns change? Hymnals are timeless, I guess, it’s only the bindings and the pages that wear out. I didn’t sing from the hymnal but I held it open against my chest, held it close to me as if it was very dear.

The man at the door handed out programs along with a small card with a picture of my friend as she looked recently – 84 years old – long white hair pulled back – and the slightest of smiles like she’d just gotten done shaking her head about something – the border, the war in Syria, homelessness. On the back was a photo of her as a beautiful young woman wearing a dancing outfit with a lot of flounce and fluff. She could sew, Sallie could, and I bet she made that outfit.

Two pews ahead of me was a young woman holding a baby. The baby was a little girl, maybe six or seven months old, and she peered over her mom’s shoulder at me and other folks and you could feel the pings of envy from everyone – wishing they had a baby or were still a baby. She had bright blue eyes and a soft open mouth that sometimes looked smiling. She grabbed the gray hair of the woman next to her whom I figured to be her grandmother mostly because of her indulgence and lack of aggravation like she had waited years to have that tiny hand pull her hair.

Sallie would have been pleased that a baby was the focus of my attention. She would have liked the other babies letting out accidental yells; she would have enjoyed the squirming of toddlers, the dad standing up to hold his one-year old daughter dressed in a fancy white dress with what we used to call crinolines underneath, she looked like a doll from the Civil War she was that grand. All of it -the jostling and moving about -Sallie would shake her head and smile and then move the chairs back so the babies could have the center of the room.

I used to spend time with Sallie but that was long ago. I sat in her kitchen many times while she cooked and talked about revolution. For a time, I picked her up before dawn to stand against anti-abortion protesters bused in from out of town to harass local clinics. I remember standing with her one morning, our arms linked with others in a long line with a protester just a few feet away yelling, “Baby killers!” at us and Sallie, looking him right in the eye and saying, “Why don’t you just shut up?” I loved her for that and for standing for choice even though she would never, ever make that choice herself. She just believed in people’s freedom was all.

Sallie and I weren’t close but we had shared history, too complicated to explain, so it was important to me that she died, that she wouldn’t be on the earth anymore. That she was gone made me think about everything while I watched the baby and I was filled with sadness and melancholy about my entire life. The people I know are dying. And the relentlessness of age and passing made me want to zip my coat up and go outside in the driving rain. The wind nearly turned my umbrella inside out.