In the last few weeks, Ralph has been in rare good form around outsiders. At a Labor Day gathering, he bonded with one of my more difficult professional associates while they shared a secret smoke on the back porch. Then for a week he totally charmed three medical students who evacuated to us from Florida during Hurricane Irma. The kids, whom we’d not met before, could not hear enough of Ralph’s stories.

But during this same time Ralph’s complicated combination of memory loss and memory fixation has rotated in a whirlpool around one small—although physically not so small—issue: Ralph’s John Deere tractor.

He loves his tractor, the same way he loved his boat. When it became clear he could no longer manage the boat, our family came up with what turned out to be a perfect solution: Ralph gave the boat to our son-in-law but got to remain Captain Emeritus. Ralph loves the arrangement.

But the tractor, unlike the boat, is actually a necessity in our lives, not something we can give away; as long as we live on the farm, we need the tractor to mow our hayfields. I can drive the riding mower on the lawn near our house, but I am too mechanically challenged to drive the tractor. So is our handyman. As for Ralph, he says he is still capable, but he fortunately shows less and less interest in operating that big, potentially dangerous machine. The few other relatives Ralph trusts with the machine—my brother, my daughter, my son, my son-in-law—all live far away, but if fields are mowed three or four times a year that would be fine.

My brother mowed the fields last spring.

They were not mowed over the summer. My nephew who stayed with us for several months over the summer offered to help, but Ralph kept saying that he needed to do “a little work on the tractor” first. I frankly didn’t pay much attention, my own avoidance mechanism at play. My nephew went back to D.C. The “little work” never got done.

The grass in our fields has now grown at least as high as the proverbial elephant’s eye.

A few weeks ago, Ralph announced that the tractor’s problem was a leaking hose he couldn’t change himself. Without telling me, Ralph evidently called the number he had for Mr. B. who always did our tractor repair. Ralph announced that Mr. B. has retired but someone was coming out to fix the tractor.

I know, I know, I should have stepped in right then and called the number myself to get the details. Haven’t I learned by now that Ralph and service people don’t mix? And so began the following saga.

The next day I noticed that the tractor had been moved back into the barn. Ralph couldn’t remember moving it. I called and talked to Mr. B’s grandson C.B. He said he’d been out to our farm, had talked to Ralph, had ordered the hose replacement and would be back to put the hose on once it arrived. Ralph had no memory of this visit. For the next few days Ralph continually asked me about the tractor because he couldn’t hold onto the fact that the hose had been ordered. He didn’t remember talking to C.B. and didn’t know why the tractor was back in the barn. But he kept repeating that he didn’t trust C.B.’s competence since C.B. hadn’t accompanied his grandfather on previous repair visits. “He’s no Mr. B.” There was no way to convince Ralph otherwise.

A week went by. I called C.B. to ask how much longer before the hose would be in. C.B. said he’d already been out and changed the hose. I told Ralph who looked at the tractor and remained adamant that the hose had not been changed. He was more convinced than ever that C.B. ”Was no Mr. B.” I frankly had no clue. I called C.B. who promised he had changed the leaking hose. Ralph swore he hadn’t. I called C.B. yet again, apologetically explaining Ralph’s memory problem and asking that C.B. please call me from now on. C.B. said the green hose Ralph kept bringing up was not the one that was leaking. I told Ralph that C.B. had changed the small black hose, not the long green one Ralph thought was leaking. Ralph swore C.B. had changed the wrong hose. After all, “He’s no Mr. B.”

Nevertheless I got Ralph to turn on the tractor. The leak was gone. I stood beside Ralph and dialed C.B.’s number. While C.B. directed Ralph around the tractor so he could check the hoses, I stood by taking notes. After many, many repeated questions and answers, Ralph finally seemed to accept that the correct hose had been changed. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Too soon. The leak was gone but the tractor’s back end that connects to the bush hog would not go up and down. Ralph was sure C.B. “who is no Mr. B.” had broken the tractor.

I called C.B. He promised to come check the tractor again. A few days passed. Ralph became increasingly fixated into his loop of questions and refrains: Had the leak had been fixed? Which hose had been changed? C.B. was no Mr. B. (who had been reduced to being C.B.’s uncle. Was there some problem with the tractor?

C.B. arrived driving a large truck to haul the tractor back to his shop if necessary. Ralph climbed into the tractor and started it up. C.B. pushed a lever by Ralph’s seat. The back end rose and fell perfectly. Ralph and he tried it again. It worked again. And Again. And Again. Ralph agreed the tractor was fixed. C.B. left. (I am waiting for the bill.)

A happy if mysterious ending. C.B. said it was possibly air in the fuel line that needed to work its way out. But I can’t help wondering if Ralph was pushing the wrong lever? Or was it something else? There is no way for me to know.

But when Ralph announced he planned to mow the field yesterday morning, I quickly pointed out that he needed to rest up for his art class that afternoon. He agreed and hasn’t shown interest in mowing although he continues to ask, “What’s the status of the tractor?” multiple times a day.

I know I’ve been describing a relatively minor series of snafus. I can’t quite capture how and why the situation exhausted and depressed me so deeply. Except that it encapsulated the grinding frustration and irritation that so much of our life as become.

And yes, I am about to invite my brother down for a mowing trip asap.


  1. The repetitive continuation of problems thought to be solved that we can’t go ahead and fix ourselves would be frustratingly exhausting under any circumstances. I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be trying to accomplish in your situation. Hopefully he begins to focus more on the fact your brother is coming to mow and accepts the tractor is fixed. .


    1. Thanks for this comment. Since I posted Ralph has continued to ask if C.B. is coming back to change the hoses. Each time I explain that the tractor is fixed he is relieved but sooner than later he asks again. So I think you are right that I need to turn his focus to the mowing although that issue may be fraught as well.


  2. I hope your brother comes soon to mow and maybe Ralph can stop worrying about the tractor for a wee while. The scenario you depicted reminded me of Dad and the television – which used to stop working all by itself. It usually meant he’d pressed the wrong buttons on the remote control. This was in the days before I moved in with him so we’d receive a phone call. Jon would explain everything step by step from unplugging it at the wall, pugging it back in followed by steps a, b, c, etc. Still not working. Jon would drive over and find it had been unplugged and not plugged back in again. Dad would be astonished. Jon wrote fool proof guides but nothing worked. He simply could not follow the required sequence but it wasn’t his fault – it was something wrong with the remote control or the television.
    Sort of amusing now, looking back, but then it was incredibly frustrating because he’d ring up at all times of the day and night – so I know how frustrated and exhausted the trials and tribulations over the tractor made you.
    All the best, Mary


    1. I can already see the humor in our efforts over the tractor, fortunately, and I know there are much more difficult frustrations others face. I wonder if some of the anxiety moments like this create come because the caregiver looks down the road and wonders what is coming next….Thanks for writing.


  3. That’s exactly it – “relatively minor snafus” yield such exhaustion and depression. I sometimes feel I should be glad that my spouse is so functional, although the functioning is exactly like Ralph and the tractor – forgetting, obsessing, doing the wrong thing but thinking it’s right, getting frustrated, forgetting, obsessing, etc. etc.
    Thanks for this really well-drawn picture!


    1. I know. I feel guilty to complain since Ralph does function so much better than many with Alzheimer’s, and yet as the spouse dealing with our daily life, the situation is so exhausting and frustrating much of the time. Thanks for writing.


  4. These “relatively minor series of snafus” are like mild cognitive impairment–not so mild, not so minor. Just reading your description exhausts me and amazes me that you are able to capture all that took place. When I try to tell someone about something like you described, I bog down in the details and can hardly make sense of it. It takes so many steps, so many explanations, so many conversations to deal with what once would have required little or no interaction. Thank you for capturing this aspect of our lives, now.


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