Ralph can’t find his belt. Everyday.
I’m at the dining room table doing my morning’s bookkeeping when the phone rings. It’s Ralph calling from the bedroom, forty feet away.
Have you seen my brown belt?
When was J here. He must have taken it. J is our son and Ralph has decided that anything he’s missing has been taken by J
J has been gone for two weeks and you wore it yesterday.
Well I can’t find it.
I walk through the kitchen to the bedroom and find the belt in Ralph’s closet.
The next night I’m watching tv in our bedroom after dinner when the phone rings.
It’s Ralph calling from the den where he’s been reading.
Have you seen my belt.
Weren’t you wearing it all day.
Well I can’t find it. J must have taken it.
J has been gone for weeks.
I turn my head to glance into the bathroom and see the belt hanging on the towel rack.
The phone rings in my car as I’m about to pull out of the driveway on my way to the grocery store the next morning.
Have you seen my belt.
Obviously misplacing a belt is no big deal and only a notch away from losing a cell phone or reading-glasses as I do all the time. What disturbs me is not the losing but Ralph’s unshakable certainty that someone, specifically our son, has taken the belt.
The stolen belt is Ralph’s current fixation, but there have been many others—his broken tractor back when he was actually still able to operate the tractor, the tools we left behind when we moved, the whereabouts of our savings, and on and on. In each case he rubs at the problem like a worry bead and blame becomes the only explanation that soothes him. Luckily, so far, he has never turned his blame spotlight on me even when, as in the case of the tools, I was probably the culprit.
While his list of fixations has been lengthening and taking more and more of his mental space, Ralph’s overall grasp of memories has weakened. I am not talking about the short term stuff everyone associates with Alzheimer’s. Yes, he repeats conversations over and over; and yes, he often can’t remember if he’s had lunch or fed the dog or brushed his teeth. But he also has increasingly less grasp on those older memories I expected him to be enjoying now.
We’ve all heard that people with Alzheimer’s are good at reminiscing about their past. Well not Ralph. Although he’ll still occasionally ask about an old friend, he seldom connects a story to the name any more. He has several fixed stories in his head from the past, some of them a bit off kilter. (Remember when we used to listen to Leonard Cohen regular program on NPR? he’ll ask regularly.) And beyond the boundaries of those fixed stories lies a memory desert. There are so many tales he used to regale me with about his childhood and his life before we met that he no longer remembers. I am pulled up short with shock each time he looks at me blankly when I bring up the time he did this or that. What must that blankness feel like from the inside?
It now occurs to me that maybe I need to see Ralph’s fixations as mental oases that offer him subject matter to mull over and talk about and fill an emptiness he must find scary. I will try but I can’t promise I won’t still get annoyed when the next phone call comes and I have to defend innocent J.