brothers

FAMILY GENETICS, OR DON’T WORRY BE HAPPY

DNA molecule

Only time can tell whether Alzheimer's is transmitted through the gene pool, in the mean time live life to its fullest.

My mother was one of ten children: six girls and four boys.  Mother, Irene, and one sister, Elaine, were victims of Alzheimer’s.  It would appear that two out of the four boys were also stricken,  all developing AD in their later years. Keeping with those same statistics, several of the siblings died at or before they reached 60, with one in her 40s. Whether some of them would have succumbed to Alzheimer’s is pure conjecture.  Yet, the four out of 10 is 40%.

In retrospect, I would say the Alzheimer’s gene came through our grandfather who died in his 50s as a victim of pernicious anemia.  Possibly, AD would have come to him later in his life had he lived, but that, of course, is another guess.  It did not come to our grandmother who died at 84. She could be stubborn, a bit cantankerous, and a little forgetful, but her quirks didn’t seem to fall under the guidelines of anything from the Dementia Umbrella.  In that same search of the past and from the stories and memories my mother told about her early childhood including remembrances of her mother, I do believe my grandmother was afflicted with attention deficit disorder, ADD.  So far, and not to my knowledge, ADD does not fall under the Dementia Umbrella.

My grandmother was proficient, though, in being able to run a somewhat organized farm life.  In addition she had her own system of birth control spacing her babies every two years (having at least one miscarriage following the birth of Irene leaving a four-year space between her and the first son).  My grandmother’s last child, a boy, was born just six months before my older sister, making him more like a cousin than an uncle.

Mama’s sister Elaine seemed to have been a little off center all during her adult life.  It wasn’t as if she lacked intelligence, it was just the fact that she seemed to be what my sisters and I called, “a little bit dingy.”  She and her husband were childless, and, perhaps, that may have influenced her life of self-importance and indulgences.  With no one to be concerned with except Elaine, her world appeared extremely limited to us.  She seemed to skate on the surface of life like the water skitters I remember buzzing over the top of stagnant pools as the creek dried up near our grandparent’s property.  Our aunt was limited in her scope, never venturing beyond where her focus was, paying no heed to anything above or below the surface of her tight, little pond. Signs for actual AD diagnosis began to appear in her 50s suggesting she was a victim of Early Onset Alzheimer’s, and possibly before.

Her husband Ray cared for her at home, with the help of my sister, Janet, for as long as he could manage. When he could no longer cope, they reluctantly found a good full-care facility where Ray hovered over his beloved wife spending every moment possible.  However, during his visits it wasn’t at all unusual for Elaine to dismiss him in favor of the familiarity of other residents which left her devoted husband shattered.  Eventually, even the familiarity of the familiar became illusive for Elaine and little by little she slipped into the nothingness of AD leaving only her shell which seemed to cling to life with the tenacity of a last leaf.  She outlived Ray by most of her 10-year confinement as Janet continued to supervise her care.

As more and more is learned about the diseases falling under the Dementia Umbrella, I see concern looming over the horizon when Ken’s and my adult children speak of the possibility of AD in their years ahead. The knowledge that both sides of their paternal grandparents have victims, and a few of Ken’s first cousins developed full-blown Alzheimer’s the future can appear daunting for the next generation.  There is fear: of course they have fear and the ever-present question, “Will I be a victim?”

As we continue our discussions I mention that the jury is still out on me and my two sisters.  I get the glance and then a possible eye roll.  “Mom!  You’re not going to get Alzheimer’s.  What do you mean the jury is still out?”  Then I remind them that my mother was in her mid-eighties when we saw the first signs.   I also remind them that there is no history whatsoever of AD existing in my father’s family and their longevity also extends into a near century.  “Hello.” I tell them in an effort of reassurance, “The genes which make up the life force in you – my children — include the strong genes of my father’s family as well as all of your other early p;rogenators.”  As our p.c. doctor mentioned when I first asked about AD and Ken the wise doctor said, “At conception, there are numbers beyond measure from which to draw the genes for a fetus.  I would say that Ken’s chances are possibly yes, and possibly no.”

The wise part from our doctor’s declaration wasn’t said in exact words, but I see it now.  He meant for me and Ken to live our life together to its fullest and deal with the problem if and when it arrives, which we did.  Even as the disease progressed we lived our lives to their fullest.   My wonder – and worry — about worry is, “Can worry cause more worry – and that worry become a problem – creating an illness through worry — thus triggering AD into a self-fulfilling prophesy?”  How much bombarding of our psyche with negative worries can a psyche endure without succumbing to that worry?  Again, a question without answers.

Statistics tell us that if we live long enough 50% of the population will have Alzheimer’s.  That’s one in every two people.  Presently, there aren’t many options:  testing is the most promising – if you can call it promising – and if you want to know the answer.  If you know, then early treatment is a good thing, and even that’s not without questions.  Perhaps we should all take a deep breath, relax in the moment — and in that moment – those moments – don’t worry, be happy.   Then burst into song with Doris Day as she belts out “Que Sera Sera,” or in other words, “What will be, will be.”

Photo courtesy of  http://www.flickr.com/photos/wheatfields/with/2074121298/

Originally posted 2011-09-17 20:03:10.

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE

When my two sisters and I were young marrieds and busy with children or careers we made every effort to stay close, visiting with one another as often as we could.  To make our relationship even more pleasant our husbands were good friends and enjoyed discussing their various fields of endeavor with one another:  Douglas, a jeweler; George, a chemist and Ken an engineer.  Douglas and Ken were WWII veterans having served in the Air Force while Ken was a Navy man.  George, however, had been 4F because of poor eyesight and hearing problems.  Nevertheless, the three delighted in conversation and would sit, bantering with one another about every subject imaginable; war experiences, college life, youth and their troubles, and solving national problems if not the world’s — not to forget sports.

We women described their endless discussions as “Can You Top This,” not to say they out-and-out lied to one another — maybe some fabrication — or better yet, they stretched the truth; each attempting to make his story, no matter what the subject, better than the others.  I had also noticed that our three weren’t much different from most other husbands we knew whose wives complained about their story telling, but right now I’m talking about just three men:  our men.  This is not an attempt to dissect the male psyche, but the habit of “Can You Top This” was something our men indulged in no matter who they were talking with, even us, their wives.  Perhaps, though, not to the degree of repartee savored for one another.

When Ken and I met the thing I liked best about him was his easy, relaxed personality; his broad comfort zone with people from all walks of life.  He could talk with anyone, something that was difficult for me, being rather shy.  I loved his stories, filled with fun and adventure.  He was the life of the party and he was my date.  Ken had the gift of fab and I was happy to be with him.

After we married I noticed his stories grew with the telling.  Happenings about his friends (when Ken wasn’t even there) began to include him as part of the escapade.  I was sure the base story was true, but I started to suspect he enjoyed elaboration and color to make his story just a little bit better, even fudging into some subject matters which were not of his expertise.  Nevertheless, he remained Mr. Charming and definitely Mr. Entertainment.  Our company took pleasure in his chatter and our young children clamored for him to tell his stories again and again, which he did beginning each episode with, “When I was in…….”

As the years passed I probably knew those accounts better than he:  high school sports (which were cut short by his becoming a Merchant Marine seaman at 15), followed by  his stint in the Navy, and then coming home from the war and finishing school.

Always athletic, he skied, had a brief spell with a fledgling (but doomed) semi-pro football team, played a little college and office-league basketball, and swung a baseball bat with the Dad’s Club of our elementary school, and our church athletic group.  If he couldn’t do it well, Ken didn’t do it at all.  For example, his experience with anything movable attached to his feet was a complete disaster.   As a family we tried roller and ice skating at the rinks, but Ken’s weak and wobbly ankles brought those undertakings to a quick end.  Good sport though he was, skating of any kind was not for him.

During all the years of our marriage, he was a sports enthusiast, seldom missing a game on TV, more often than not to my annoyance.  Now, with his Alzheimer’s disease I find myself scanning the screen for any competition which might hold his attention.   Several nights ago, I found a hockey game in full battle.  Personally, I had never paid much attention to Hockey, but as the skaters raced around the rink, I found myself watching.  “Look Ken,” I excitedly said, “They look like a bunch of chickens chasing a bug.”  I wondered in his dementia if he would pick up on what the skaters were doing, but he actually watched and laughed at the wild, fast movements as the players chased the small, black speck on the ice.  We talked a little bit about the game and he actually laughed at my chicken joke.  Then somewhere in his clouded mind the old fabricator struggled free and said, “When I was in high school, I played a little hockey…….not much, our team was really small, but we did all right…..”

I rolled my eyes, and smiled, it was nice to know that somewhere in that tangled mind, Ken, the great spinner of tall tales was still there playing his favorite game, “Can You Top This.”  Some things — hopefully — never change.

Originally posted 2009-07-09 05:56:49.

REAL MEN DON’T HUG

We had just helped our oldest son unload the last of his boxes.  Watching him settle into the austere dorm room I felt that pang of longing which mothers often get watching their children leave home.   I had felt the same way when our older daughters went off to college and marriage. Now it was Kevin’s turn to spread his fledging wings and fly from the nest.

College would be an adventure in itself, but we had turned this one-way-trip for him into a family vacation.    With our two younger boys, Keith and Kenney, the five of us camped our way through Yellowstone  and the surrounding country before dropping Kevin off in Idaho to begin his freshman year.  I vowed to be brave and gave him a big hug and kiss as I told him I loved him and to be good.  Ken reached out his right hand to shake hands with this gangling young man we had reared and I said, “Oh, for goodness Ken, give your son a hug.”  “Real men don’t hug,” my husband lightly replied.   “Do they Kevin?”  With that the two shook hands and patted one another firmly on the shoulder.    From the car we waved and smiled as I  pinched myself to produce a physical pain.  I needed a counter-irritant for my aching heart.

All the way home, the younger boys referred to their older brother as “Brand X.”  “Why are you calling Kevin Brand X?”  asked Ken.  “Because every time we mention his name, Mom begins to cry,” answered Keith.   Laughing at their humor I admitted it was true.  I always found it hard to let go.   From their first day of kindergarten, mom’s send their sons off with hugs, kisses and a few tears, while  the fathers pat their little men on the shoulders and give them a hardy handshake.

The first few phone calls home were almost more painful than the parting.  He was homesick, lonely and disappointed because he wasn’t selected to be on the travel team and wouldn’t be playing in the first football game of the season.   So I became the strong one encouraging him to hang in there and that, surely, he would be selected for the next game.  He took comfort in my words and the following day joined five girls in a tiny VW to deliver a non-student back to her home in a neighboring state. 

The next phone call was from the Sheriff’s Department near Malad, Idaho informing me that our son had been in a tragic automobile accident and lay unconscious in the town’s hospital.   We made immediate arrangements to fly to Pocatello, rent a car and drive to Malad.  Seeing him lying there so hurt, so out of our reach we wondered if he would ever be awake again — if we would ever be able to hug him and hold  him close.  For three days he was engulfed in a coma while we sat and waited, hoped and prayed.   Finally, late in the afternoon a nurse came to tell us that our son was awake.  Through his foggy focus, Kevin looked at Ken and said, “Hi Pudg,” a nickname for his slightly overweight father.  After that, Ken always hugged his sons.

Recently I asked Keith (who lives nearby) to help move some furniture.  It took just a few minutes making the visit brief.  All the while Ken looked at the man before us with suspicion.  “This is Keith, our son,” I explained several times.  The confused look continued.  “I’m your son,” Keith said, looking straight into his father’s eyes.  “I’m not sure about that,” Ken answered.  “I’m just not sure.”  I thanked Keith profusely for his help and gave him a hug.  He turned to leave then thought better of it and came back to his father, reached around his shoulders and gave him a hug saying, “Bye, dad.”  With his left hand he patted his father on the back — momentarily forgetting —  but patting right on the spot of Ken’s throbbing shingles.   Keith’s hug awakened no memories in the demented mind of his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father.  Ken pulled back in pain, anger and a flurry of words about this strange man doing him harm spewed from his mouth.  “Thank you for the tender try,” I said as my son apologized and left.  My eyes welled with tears as Ken continued to rant.   Did Keith feel rejected and hurt even though he understood?  Interesting how mothers always feel their children’s pain.  Some day, the Lord willing and in the far distant future of eternity, Ken will return Keith’s hug  because in his heart of hearts my husband has learned that real men do hug.

Originally posted 2009-04-08 06:41:48.

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