Our fourth annual “Camp Mountain Creek” gathering of the cousins ended this morning. For the last eight days Ralph put up with three female adults (me, our niece and her friend) and four teen and preteen girls (our niece’s daughters and our granddaughter). Enough to wear out any man.
I have watched with fascination the evolution of the relationships among the girls as they mature. There used to be spats and hurt feelings that had to be soothed. This year they simply enjoyed one another. While there were shifting match ups there was no ganging up. The kids have created traditions they cling to (killer charades, skinny dipping, endless junk food) and have amassed stories they can tell and retell (scary moments, funny moments, angry moments, and serious moments like discussing racism and violence in America in light of the recent shootings). There were lots of tears when the cousins said goodbye.
I have also watched how their interactions with Ralph have changed. Four years ago he was at the center of things: taking them fishing, scaring them with ghost stories, driving them to Dairy Queen, and disciplining them on occasion.
Three years ago, they thought it was hilarious when he got a little lost on the way to McDonalds. Two years ago, they begged him to play Scattergories but he wouldn’t. Last year they couldn’t get him to tell his ghost stories.
This year we managed to get him to come with us for one meal out. He didn’t swim, despite temperatures in the nineties. He didn’t play games. He didn’t tell stories.
Mostly he enjoyed the girls’ presence at a remove. While he was not disturbed by the altered routine, the messy house, the noise, he did not go out of his way to be part of the activities. He kept up his daily routine—sleeping late, sitting on the porch, disappearing for an hour or two into his “office”, taking his afternoon nap followed by more time on the porch, dinner, and bed.
Sometimes he rallied. After enough teasing, he changed from jeans into shorts and sat with everyone by the pool one afternoon. Last night eating pizza at our last dinner together, he was as funny and engaged as ever.
The girls still adore him but they are old enough now to understand and want to discuss. I had to explain his diagnosis and what Alzheimer’s entails. The younger ones asked the older ones what he used to be like. The older ones talked about being “sad” over the changes they have noticed. They are all incredibly patient with him.
At first I was upset that they were so aware of Ralph’s diminishing self. But a friend pointed out that they were experiencing the life cycle first hand. She’s right. These girls will never forget their carefree weeks together on the farm, and sharing not only the joyful but also the bittersweet will make those memories all the more powerful. I wish I could be around to hear them reminisce about their “Uncle Ralph” and “Oppa” when they get together thirty years from now, as I have no doubt they will.