“I decided I wanted to BE a nurse because of her,” the nurse explains. “I was in a bad situation, living with my boyfriend’s family, my mom had just died. I was lost...”

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 Animal Farm.

“I decided I wanted to BE a nurse because of her,” the nurse explains. “I was in a bad situation, living with my boyfriend’s family, my mom had just died. I was lost…”

“Who is Saint Hubert!” yells the elderly woman. She looks at me with crazed eyes. “Saint Hubert! Ha!”

The only Hubert I ever knew was my former supervisor who often belittled employees in public. He also spoke with an unnaturally high voice. Because of this, some employees called him “Huberty Puberty.”

One disgruntled coworker even wrote this nickname on Hubert’s new Mustang convertible with shaving cream. Not me. I didn’t do it. I would never do that. But I did purchase the shaving cream.

The elderly woman’s son drops in. When she sees him, she says:

“Yogurt, get my yogurt. They’re trying to kill me. Where are my car keys? I need yogurt. I like blueberry. Who are you?”

“It’s okay, Mama,” he says. “I’m here, Mama.”

She returns to her beloved Alex Trebek.

Her son whispers, “When I was a kid, Mama was all about civil rights, she wanted to take me and my sister to a Doctor King rally, but my dad was like, ‘No, it’s too dangerous…’”

“Who is Andy Williams!” the woman says.

“My mother was ostracized by her friends for things she believed. But she didn’t care, she knew she was doing right in this world, and her students looked up to her.”

Another interruption by a middle-aged woman who comes through the door. Her name is Carrie.

“I went to her church,” Carrie says. “She was so cool. She had a huge influence on me.

“When I was twenty, I almost gave up college, I wasn’t sure I could go through with the rest of my degree. She took me to lunch one day and told me that she believed in me, and she let me bear my soul for hours. I cried a lot, she was my hero. She changed my life, you know?”

“What is a Keebler elf!” the old woman hollers.

When Jeopardy! is over, the woman’s son apologizes to me. He tells me his mother’s disease brings many good days and bad days. Today wasn’t exactly a “good day,” he explains.

But I don’t mind. Interviews don’t always work out. You win some, you lose many.

I am about to leave when the elderly woman in the wheelchair faces me. She smiles, and I can see something sharp in her eyes. She’s awake.

It’s her. The real her. She is a beacon in an overcast world. She is a voice. She is someone who once told children that they were unique. And important. And equal. And loved. And that we can be whatever we want to be if we try. And even though she is foggy today, she will always be holy because of this. For she is a teacher.

The lady’s eyes rest on me. “Now who’re you again?” she says.

Her son answers, “This is the writer I told you about, Mama.”

“Oh, the writer? Did you know I used to teach writing? I taught a lotta beautiful kids. Kids are so beautiful aren’t they? So very, very beautiful.”

Yes, ma’am.

And so are you.

Next time, I’ll bring yogurt.

14 comments

  1. Karen Erwin-Brown - November 18, 2018 11:06 am

    Getting the Kleenex again. That stuff got my Momma but we had some beautiful times despite it. We sang alot of Cokesbury hymns in some odd spots.

    Reply
  2. Donna - November 18, 2018 1:11 pm

    This rugged at my heart!
    My mother had this awful disease and I too? Remember good days and bad days.

    Reply
  3. Naomi - November 18, 2018 1:33 pm

    My aunt had Alzheimer’s. She was a very smart woman and was the secretary to the president of a bank in Los Angeles. She taught her husband how to invest in the stock market and handled all of their personal investments. In her late 70s, she started fading away until she reached the point where she didn’t know who she was or even how to brush her teeth or even know how to use a fork. My husband and I visited them at least once a year for almost 20 years and helped my uncle get her into an adult day care center where they had all kinds of activities so she didn’t have to sit and stare at the TV all day long. We also got my uncle into an Alzheimer’s support group and when we were in CA, we went with him and learned a lot about dementia and Alzheimer’s. She died in 1998 and the medical profession has not found a cure or a prevention for Alzheimer’s. I am amazed that people who are extremely brilliant, teachers, college professors and even doctors get Alzheimer’s. If you know anyone with dementia or Alzheimer’s, please don’t talk to them like they are children or yell at them thinking that will help them understand what you are saying. We have a young lady who we have known since she was a teenager. She got full-blown Alzheimer’s in her early 50s and has been in a nursing home for several years now. I pray that our medical researchers will find a cure for this horrible disease. I have written to the Alzheimer’s Association to look into the possibility that Alzheimer’s is brought on by stress and emotional problems. All of the people I have known who got Alzheimer’s were living and working in very stressful situations.

    Reply
  4. Barbara Pope - November 18, 2018 1:48 pm

    Now you’re thinking and come before or after Jeopardy–my favorite show for over 50 years.

    Reply
  5. Carol - November 18, 2018 2:05 pm

    Blueberry!!
    Love ya!

    Reply
  6. Jack Darnell - November 18, 2018 2:43 pm

    Once you have met Alzheimer, you dang sure won’t forget the thief! It is no fun! ;-(

    Reply
  7. G - November 18, 2018 3:28 pm

    My mom had dementia the last few months of her life and spent that time in a nursing home. Awful, awful way to leave this life.

    Reply
  8. Edna B. - November 18, 2018 4:58 pm

    I agree that Alzheimer is a nasty disease. For many years, I took care of folks with this disease, and it is just so sad. I, too, pray for a cure for it. I love your patience with this wonderful woman. You’re a good man Sean. You have a wonderful day. Hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  9. Kathleen Jun Magyar - November 18, 2018 6:07 pm

    That writing teacher would also tell you to bare your soul, not bear it. But it was a lovely story

    Reply
    • Cay Weaver - November 26, 2018 3:28 am

      I was going to correct him, but I’m glad you spared me the need. It was a lovely story.

      Reply
  10. Robin Kurtz - November 19, 2018 1:38 am

    You touch my heart with every one of your articles. I thank you.

    Reply
  11. Roxanne - November 19, 2018 2:51 am

    Thank you for this. My mother-in-law did cancer research at MD Anderson for 35 years and is now in a memory care Home. It is so hard to see her brilliant mind gone, but we are blessed that she still knows us with her heart. Her brain can’t always process HOW we are hers, just that we ARE hers. Her face lights up, and she is so glad we are with her.

    Reply
  12. Sandra Smith - November 19, 2018 5:33 am

    You made this ol’ Nurse smile.
    (and, my eye’s leaked a little too)
    ❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤

    Reply
  13. Beverly - November 19, 2018 11:38 pm

    Well, that one gave me goosebumps! Precious! I’ve had the priveledge of seeing that look before. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Reply

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