I am watching Jeopardy! with an elderly woman who doesn’t know why I’m here because she has Alzheimer’s.
We are in a nursing home. She sits in a wheelchair and blurts out answers along with the TV contestants.
To be honest, Jeopardy! moves too fast for me. By the time I’ve figured out one question, the show is over, and the eighteen-year-old from Sheboygan, who designs nanotubular probes for NASA, has won twelve thousand dollars. Game over.
This elderly woman was a tenth-grade English teacher. She has spent a lifetime sharpening her brain. She taught English, literature, and poetry. She showed average children how to become above average.
I am here to interview her, but she is too engrossed.
The nurse introduces us.
The elderly woman says, “Who’re you, and where’s my blueberry yogurt?”
“This man is a writer,” the nurse explains. “Remember, I told you?”
“I don’t care if he’s Topo Gigio,” she says. “Where’s my yogurt?”
The nurse winks at me.
So far so good.
I clear my throat and
ask a question to get the conversational banter going. The woman shushes me, then shouts: “I’ll take folk music for five hundred!”
“What is ‘the Ballad of Frankie and Johnnie!’”
The nurse winks at me again and urges me to keep questioning. So I do.
“Do you play piano anymore?” I ask. “Your nurse tells me you play the—”
“What is the Treaty of Tordesillas!”
It’s impressive how this elderly woman can know so much trivia, but doesn’t always remember her own name. Alzheimer’s is a cruel enemy.
I am about to give up on the interview when one of the nearby nurses whispers a story to me. She tells me that long ago, this woman was her high-school teacher. The woman taught her to appreciate books like Catcher in the Rye, the Old Man and the Sea, and…