Tag Archives: Alzheimer's and friendship

Mourning Friends’ Deaths–A Startling Blip in our Alzheimer’s Routine

I haven’t been posting much lately because our life with Alzheimer’s has been sloping so gently that there is little about Ralph’s situation I haven’t already discussed. However, last weekend was a noticeable blip on the static screen of our physical and emotional schedule.I continue to ponder the experience and what it says about Ralph and me now.
In November Ralph’s oldest friend Jim had died in Atlanta. Ralph and Jim met in high school and although their lives had moved in somewhat different directions, the two remained friends and saw other regularly over the years, at least until Rick’s cognitive decline, along with our move to Nola, made Ralph less interested in keeping up with anyone. Somewhere along the line he lost Jim’s phone number, but during the height of Covid I messaged Jim through Facebook suggesting he call Ralph. I didn’t hear back directly but asked Ralph frequently over the next few days if they’d talked;. One afternoon he nodded, “Yes, we talked this morning,”  but showed no memory of or interest in the conversation. Thinking back, I could kick myself for not checking his phone right then and saving Jim’s phone number  I did neither, big mistake. When Jim’s distraught widow contacted us to say he’d died, I was the one who talked to her at length, but Ralph was visibly shaken Ito a degree I had seen only once before—when my father, whom Ralph loved from the moment they met, died

I tentatively brought up attending the memorial scheduled for January. Jim’s widow made it clear it would mean a great deal to the family for Ralph to  take part. I have learned (the hard way) not to  push Ralph into activities—even those I think would be good for him—and to let him set the pace. But Ralph seemed enthusiastic. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Of course as the day approached Ralph’s enthusiasm waned. He’d forgotten we were going, only sporadically remembered that Jim had died. Still, he passively went along when I reminded him the night before and again Friday morning that we were driving that day to Atlanta for the Memorial Celebration at Manuel’s Tavern the next afternoon. 

Manuel’s Tavern, a bar known as a gathering spot for liberal and leftist activists was a fixture of Ralph and Jim’s youth as political hell-raisers. In fact both were banned from the bar at different times. (I don’t know why Jim was; Ralph was banned because he foolishly brought his mother, whom I’ll  euphemistically call a character, and she got into a fight with another patron.) Jim had stayed politically active; Ralph had become a entrepreneur, even briefly flirted with libertarianism before returning to the liberal fold. Except for Jim, he had lost contact with his old comrades. 

During the eight hour drive Ralph veered between “I am dreading this” and “I wonder who will be there” He tried to dredge up names of old (literally) radicals from the sixties, most of whom I didn’t know since I met Ralph in the early 1970s while we worked at an underground paper called the Great Speckled Bird. Aside from Jim’s family, the only people I knew we would be seeing were Ralph’s first wife and her husband; I’d been emailing with her. I was beginning to wonder if I’d made a mistake dragging him so far. Then we checked into a small hotel in what used to be a flop house in our old neighborhood and discovered the hallways were lined with framed covers of the Bird. It was an eerie beginning.

The memorial celebration itself was intense but meaningful. The first thing we saw walking in was a prominently displayed picture of Jim as a young man, a photo Ralph had taken. Jim’s widow acknowledged in her speech how much it meant to her that Jim’s oldest friend had traveled so far to be there. Ralph nodded and murmured agreement as she and Jim’s sons discussed Jim’s life. And when one of his sons brought up the influence Jim’s mother Noreen had had on all their lives Ralph teared up. Noreen had been like a second mother, introducing him to ideas and conversations, but more important giving him the emotional support, 

he’d never had in his own home. After the speeches he talked to Jim’s widow and two of the sons at length with graciousness and heartfelt emotions. This was a Ralph I seldom see, and frankly seldom saw before Alzheimer’s.

“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” he said as we walked to the car. I was deeply moved.

Yet fifteen minutes later, when a friend we met for dinner asked him about the afternoon Ralph shrugged, “A waste of time; nobody talked about 

“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” he said as we walked to the car. I was deeply moved.

Yet fifteen minutes later, when a friend we met for dinner asked him about the afternoon Ralph shrugged, “A waste of time; nobody talked about Jim.

Since then he has not mentioned our trip but every so often asks either  “Who died again? Or “So what did Jim die of?”

Meanwhile, the night after the ceremony I learned that my oldest friend, whom I’d known practically from birth since our mothers were best friends, had finally succumbed the cancer that he’d been fighting for over a year. It was not a surprise, but his widow sounded disconsolate. And today, as I was writing this post, I was interrupted by by my phone beeping—another close friend calling to say her husband had died unexpectedly two days ago. She described herself as numb.

Death is obviously on my mind.  But not only death. Also the complexity of marriage, the complicated grief of the widows.  And the complicated maze my marriage has become, the rare but real glimmers I get of Ralph’s true self punctuating the gray twilight he inhabits most of the time. And how confused my own feelings become.