sisters

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.

MAMA, THE BEAST, AND ME

treadle sewing machine

Alzheimer's took away even the memory of the sound of a sewing machine for a professional seamstress.

I could barely hear it as my mother asked, “What’s that humming sound?” Pointing in the direction of the bedrooms she continued, “It’s coming from over there.” Having just arrived, I paused, and with neither of us saying a word I too wondered what we were hearing.  Following the hum it led us into a bedroom where there were two large oak dressers, a few chairs and an industrial sewing machine from her years of owning a custom-made-fashions shop with my sister, Janet, in San Francisco.

Mama was fast approaching the middle stage of Alzheimer’s with lots of cognitive loss, but she periodically remembered bits and pieces from her past when something familiar triggered her memory.  Apparently, she had passed by the bedroom earlier that morning, and recognized her sewing machine.  Or perhaps it was the small rip in her slacks which needed to be mended that brought her to what had been so familiar. Sitting down in front of her old “friend,” her hand could have automatically reached over and flipped the switch turning on the motor of her outdated, but still efficient, sewing machine.  With the fickleness of Alzheimer’s her reasoning probably vanished no doubt leaving her to wonder why she was sitting there. Puzzled, she got up and walked away – leaving the motor running.

Conjecture for sure, but AD is often guesswork.  I turned the motor off and pulled the plug from the wall knowing that if she had gone further in an effort to mend her slacks, the speed and power of the needle could have seriously damaged her fingers.  With the humming noise stopped my mother returned to be with my father while I lingered.  Nostalgia swept over me as I rubbed my hand over the solid wood “apron” which housed the “beast” as Janet called the powerful machine.  My thoughts were of Mama and the woman she was other than a parent with three grown daughters – the woman she was before AD had ravaged portions of her brain.

My mother, Irene, had been blessed with endless talents: articulate, funny, inventive, tall and beautiful to look upon, but slim and delicate in frame. She was, however, strong in every practical sense.  Blessed with an artistic flair that touched just about every aspect in the field of fine arts.  Phenomenal designs or a painting quickly took shape as her pencil, charcoal stick or pastels skated across a blank sheet of paper.  These natural talents were gifts with which she had been born, and developing them to their utmost had been one of her goals.

While artistic design was her passion sewing came naturally from a long line of women progenitors; each woman teaching her girls the skills and practicality of stitchery in all of its forms. During the Great Depression, my mother supplemented my father’s sporadic and meager income by sewing custom-made clothes for women of means whose lives had escaped the economic disaster.

Her skills plus a designer’s genius and fitting expertise caused her customer’s to exclaim, “Irene is a wonder.” My sisters and I agreed, and we all looked forward to our 10th birthday when she would begin teaching us dress making and tailoring on her old treadle Singer sewing machine.  My two older sisters had already reached that pinnacle.

Being the youngest, I could hardly wait to be ten.  With small pieces of fabric from Mama’s scrap box I envisioned what dresses I could make for my dolls once I learned to sew.  Every so often when my mother was out of sight I sat in front of the sewing machine with my pieces of cloth and tried stitching them together.  Watching Mama many times as she worked, I knew the steps about putting the pressure foot in place, giving the wheel a pull and coaxing the treadle to move with my feet.  I could never do it right – the treadle thing –back and forth, back and forth so the pulley turned the wheel in the right direction.  I failed each time leaving the threads from the needle and bobbin tangled or broken.  Quietly, I would slip away never telling anyone of my attempt, but I’m sure Mama knew I was the culprit who kept messing up the threads.  I wondered if I would ever master the foot rhythm.

Months before my 10th birthday I came home from school to find Mama removing the contents from the sewing machine’s drawers.  I sensed it was more than just cleaning and asked what she was doing.  “We’re getting a new sewing machine,” she happily informed me, “a new electric Singer.”  With instant tears spilling from my eyes I plopped down in a nearby chair. Feeling betrayed, I could not share in her joy, and tears came because she was trading in the old treadle for some new-fangled electric machine that disappeared into a desk.  I just knew I would never be allowed to touch – much less sew on it until …. I couldn’t even imagine when.  My dolls would be forever naked.  “Now I’ll never learn how to sew,” I sniveled.

Placing the drawer back into its slot, Mama rose from her chair and knelt down beside me.  “Now, what makes you believe that?” she asked.  “The new sewing machine is too good for me to use.   I might break it,” I whimpered.  “How would you like to be the very first one to sew something on the new ‘Singer?’” Mama offered.  My tears turned off like an empty cloud.  “Could I – really?” I questioned, “even if I’m only nine,” not sure of what I was hearing.  “You will be the first,” she promised – and I was.

With my hand still resting on the “beast” I remembered my favorite blue plaid pleated skirt and the coordinated royal blue corduroy jacket from high school, and my beautiful graduation suit of light-weight pale pink wool featuring a peplumed jacket trimmed with black cording on the collar, cuffs and the small decorative strip of belting attached at the waist back. It was exquisite and when I wore it I felt stunning. A few years later she designed and sewed my wedding dress of grand cotton lace with long sleeves ending at the wrists with a traditional calla-lily point. 

My mother had taught me to sew nearly as skillfully as she, but it took me years of practice to even come close to her excellence. For special garments there was nothing like Irene’s original creations.

Standing there musing I wondered when she had stopped being that fabulous, creative person I had known.  What had been her last sewing project and how long since she had painted a meadow filled with blossoming apple trees or the ocean’s waves pounding the shore?  When was it that Alzheimer’s had stilled her artistic fingers, devouring the brain cells that guided her many talents?  What subtle changes about his wife had my father noticed that brought about his decision to leave their comfortable life in Sonoma County, California.

My parents had moved from their wonderful retirement home in the country outside of Sebastopol, California in the late 1980s when Dad admitted they could no longer be so far from family because of Mama’s declining mental health.  Finding a house just a few short blocks from Ken and I lived was the perfect solution for their needs.  My father had always said, “I don’t want to live with you, just near you in our own home.”  With help a few minutes away he was able to care for most of her needs, or call us in an emergency.  Nevertheless, I didn’t wait for a call. Instead I stopped by at least once a day, knowing how lonely he was, and to make sure all was well.  Important too – I doubt my father would have heard the beast’s motor running with his poor hearing.

I was glad to be there for them, and within the next few years it would be more of the little things, the gradual changes made by Alzheimer’s insatiable appetite that Dad and I would observe in caring for my mother. Irene would regress from the woman we fondly remembered, spinning down through the years of her life eventually becoming a sweet-natured child who spent afternoons with her mother who — she insisted — was me.

Originally posted 2011-05-14 23:57:11.

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.

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