Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s wife

When Forgetting The Past Becomes Remembering the Present Wrong

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“So, Alice, when do we have to leave for the birthday party”

I come home at five in the afternoon to find my husband showered, shaved, and dressed in a clean shirt. Sounds great, doesn’t it, Ralph getting ready on his own?

Only problem is that the  party he is talking about is a dinner I wrote about here weeks ago. The one he clearly didn’t enjoy attending at the time.

“We aren’t going to a birthday party.”

“Are you sure. Well, why did I think we were?” Puzzlement all over his usually placid face.

“I’m don’t know. We had dinner for H’s retirement three weeks ago.”

“We did? I don’t remember.” It is almost physical, how hard he is thinking before a memory takes shape. “Oh yeah, it was boring. Well, I’m relieved. I spent all afternoon dreading the birthday party.”

“Since you’re dressed, why don’t we go out to supper?”

“I don’t feel like going out. It’s too late.”

“Are you sure.” He is spiffed up after all, and it would be good to get him out of the house and his rut. Also, frankly, I wouldn’t mind not having to cook.

“No, I don’t feel like going out anywhere.” He shakes his head, standing by the door to the porch. “You sure you didn’t tell me we had to go to a party tonight. Why would I think we were going to a party?”

“I promise, we went to dinner for H’s retirement three weeks ago. Maybe you had a dream while napping and it felt real?”

“Maybe.” He shrugs and heads onto the porch, unlit cigarette already  in one hand, beer in the other, dog at his heels. We will repeat the same conversation throughout dinner but now, clearly shaken, he needs time to himself (as do I).

The way that facts once forgotten can’t be retrieved has become our normal problem as an Alzheimer’s couple, annoying but easily handled. But now Ralph has presented me with a created, or rather mis-created memory. A new process has misremembered, twisted and reshaped a fact before lodging it in Ralph’s brain. Will our new normal problem encompass not simply a loss of Ralph’s sense of the past but a reshaping of his present reality into something unpredictable, unreliable and disturbing.

Alzheimer’s Benefit–Exposing A Goodness Quotient

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I am prone to cynicism in general. And like a lot of people, I have been more demoralized by the state of the world than usual lately. So I am a bit surprised to find myself celebrating what, for lack of better phrase, I’ll call the goodness quotient in human beings.

Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Anne Frank, Nelson Mandela, Saint Francis—their lives are awe-inspiring and intimidating in equal measure. They have had their human imperfections here and there, but few of us aspire to their level of goodness. At least I never have. (In fact, I admit to spending MLK Day sitting around the house when I should have been out volunteering.)

But after reading the recent spate of articles surrounding Reverend King and John Lewis as well as a post entitled Gratitude in the Land of Dementia on the blog One of Life’s Little Surprises, I am struck by a reality that I seldom consider, the capacity of so many “normal” people to help others.

In particular, how do so many people find themselves able to accept challenges and responsibilities they never imagined they would face when their loved ones became increasing cognitively impaired. Why don’t they walk away (as I am often tempted to do from a so far less difficult situation)?

Individuals may answer, “I love my husband/ wife/ mother/ father/ sibling/ friend/ partner;” but that’s not it, not in any conventional sense. Of course I can’t speak for anyone else when I acknowledge that whatever emotional chemistry existed between Ralph and me before his diagnosis—whether the early passion or deep marital affinity—has definitely altered since his mind and identity have altered along the Alzheimer’s spectrum. I suspect the same kind of alteration has occurred between other caregivers and caregivees.

So, what specifically is the mix of loyalty, generosity, duty and sympathy/empathy that makes so many of the caregivers I’ve run across (who know who you are, Mary, Nancy, and all you others) tick?

I certainly don’t have an answer, but it is heartening to realize that when faced with the challenge, a large number of flawed, normal people are capable of being kinder and more caring than we expected of ourselves

A New Year’s Resolution: Self-Caregiving

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We all hear from and tell others how important it is to take of one self as a caregiver. Lately a Caregiver’s Bill Have Rights Has Been Circulating. The suggestions make a lot of sense, in particular to take care of myself; to recognize the limits of my endurance and strength; to maintain facets of my life that do not include Ralph; to allow myself to get angry or be depressed occasionally (that’s an easy one); to stop being manipulated into feeling guilty (that’s a hard one, no manipulation required); to accept affection, and appreciation; to protect my individuality.

But in talking to others in the trenches, I find I am not alone in feeling that, even with a Bill of Rights posted one my wall, it is not always clear what taking care of oneself means.

One example: Back when Ralph and I were first dealing with his diagnosis, I loved reading about Alzheimer’s Wife’s quick trip to Paris at https://alzheimerswife.wordpress.com/?s=paris, especially since I took a similar two day trip myself. Now my daughter is about to have her first baby and I will be traveling alone quite a bit to help out (I am dragging Ralph with me when the baby arrives but he’s made clear that he does not want to leave home more than absolutely necessary). I want to go and look forward to Nana-ing, but I find myself as worried about the arrangements for him as excited about the actual travel.

The ying and yang here is the question–Do I let myself relax into the slow down, or do I try to squeeze in some activity that ends up putting more pressure on me. My resolution for the new year is to work on finding the answer, for my sake, but also for Ralph’s because he is definitely happier when I am.

But you know how resolutions usually turn out.img_0154

(PS—Happy New Year…I’ll let you know if disinterest in grandfatherhood lasts when there is a real baby for Ralph to hold in his arms)

Ralph “Passes” the Test to Participate in Alzheimer’s Study

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The research nurse at Emory’s Brain Center called a week ago asking if we—Ralph and I because caregivers play an active role—would be interested in participating in a research study.  The nurse had already looked at Ralph’s chart and said she thought he’d be a good fit.

The study is  being conducted by the pharmaceutical company Merck  on a possible treatment to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. As the Merck brochure says, “This study is designed to test the idea that inhibiting a specific enzyme, BACE, may slow or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. The drug in this study, MK-8931, is a BACE inhibitor, which means it helps stop the BACE enzyme from producing amyloid beta peptides. Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain may be the underlying cause of Alzheimer’s disease. By inhibiting the actions of the BACE enzyme, it may in turn help stop the formation of those amyloid plaque deposits.”

In other words, the study hopes to find a way to slow down the build up of the plaque that is assumed to cause Alzheimer’s and that is evident in Ralph’s brain according to the spinal tap his doctor administered several years ago.

I glanced at Ralph, who was on the couch having his afternoon nap, and said yes, I thought we might like to participate. I was actually quite excited. In the past Ralph has not qualified for studies and drug trials like this because of his MRI problem—the bb pellet that has been lodged in his tongue since a shooting accident when he was eight-years-old not only uncomfortably heats up during the procedure but distorts results—but this particular study has dropped the MRI requirement.

The nurse immediately emailed the study’s descriptions and consent forms, which I read and explained to Ralph. And explained again.

“I hate taking pills.”/“You won’t even notice the extra pill.”

“How often will I have to go see the doctor?”/“Every other month.”

“What if I’m stuck with the placebo? It’ll be a waste of time?”/“But the study will give you the real pill afterwards, and in any case, the study will benefit others, like your kids who are at genetic risk.”

“Ok, it sounds good. But I hate taking pills.” The familiar loop repeated itself over and over, and each time he ended up agreeing to participate, if with tepid enthusiasm.

Three days later we were at Emory. (Evidently the study, which has already been going for a year or two, needed a few extra last-minute entries and the deadline got pushed up so we were a rush job.)

Ralph took two memory/cognitive tests which have qualified him although “passing the test” is not the term I’d use exactly, at least not for the second test in which the cut off number had to do with having too much memory. Ralph evidently “passed” with flying colors because his memory score was very low. I have to say when the nurse whispered the news to me, my heart sank a little.

Now we are waiting for Merck to look at the scores before scheduling some physical tests. If Ralph makes it through through those, he will begin taking the extra pill with his Namenda and Donepezil daily. There is a one-third chance or receiving a placebo, a one-third chance of receiving a lowish dosage of the medication, and a one-third chance of receiving a higher dosage. I will be expected to keep track of his progress in some form that has not yet been clarified—I warned the research nurse that I may be travelling some in January after my daughter gives birth, but she said that would not be a problem.

Once Ralph starts the pill, we will meet every two months with medical personnel, including his neurologist, a dermatologist and the research nurse, for the next two years. When the two years are up, if he’s been taking a placebo, Ralph will then receive the higher dosage of the actual medication; otherwise he will continue on the dosage he started with.

I see no downside (except, if I am honest, the extra effort required on my part) and plenty of pluses. Because we are entering the study late, there is plenty of knowledge about side effects—minor and rare. The frequent visits to Emory are a great excuse to get Ralph out of the house and into the world. Plus he will be receiving more detailed health check ups on a more frequent basis. We will no doubt have a better sense of where he is on the continuum than we do now.

And, although he says he doesn’t care, the idea of doing something useful for others, of being part of a cause larger than himself, will give him a sense of purpose; even at Emory the other day I saw the shift from anxiety (which may have caused his low memory score) to energetic good cheer as he interacted with staff.

And if the medication makes a noticeable difference in Ralph’s condition, well that would be great too. Fingers crossed.

“I LOVE YOU”–Easier Said Than Done For Caregivers of the Cognitively Impaired

I happened to read a post at the Alzheimer’s Reading Room call Three Little Words. I am sure the article’s author Bob DeMarco is right. I realize that saying “I love you” is a wonderful thing to say. I am sure DeMarco is also right that changing patterns of behavior as a caregiver is a good idea.

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But frankly I am not feeling it at the moment. I can hear you responding, that’s the point. If you say it, you will change how you are feeling and behaving. I get it intellectually and I don’t not love Ralph. But saying those words, and I do, sounds hollow. The truth, which is not always pretty, is that being together with him day in and day out is an emotional drain. Solitary even when we are in the same room and de-energizing because I tend to let myself drift into a slough of inaction with Ralph that I find both debilitating and anxiety-producing. (And yes, I know I should do things to make him more active, and I try, I really do.)

So, politically incorrect as this may be, I admit that I often put my own needs before Ralph’s these days. As I have said here before, we never had exactly an easy, or even happy marriage. I blame myself as much as him because I passively allowed him to be what he called “the captain” of the family, what the rest of us sometimes called the bully. My reasons were the usual complex mix of love, laziness, fear, and indecision.

Now, of course, Ralph is someone else altogether. As am I.

He has become the passive, gentle man who sat in the car today without complaining while I did grocery shopping on our way home from his aborted shrink appointment—for which he blamed not his therapist or me but himself for screwing up the dates and which despite the two hours spent driving in the car was not a complete waste of time because it gave his day a focus. The new jovial Ralph didn’t care that my run into Publix for milk turned into a full-fledged six-bag expedition.

Ten years ago, even if all I needed was a quick pint of milk, I would have driven him home and then driven back to the store we were passing on the way rather than argue over the practicality of adding an extra hour of driving to my life. For better or worse that weak-kneed version of Alice has disappeared. I have become a woman who tries to be diligent in her care but is seldom anything approaching affectionate.

Which brings me to this further shocking-to-me admission: Lately I have found myself transferring my affections from Ralph to another love object.

lola                I snuggle with Lola. I baby-talk to her the way I always made fun of other dog owners for doing. I encourage her to lie on the bed with me while I drink my morning coffee (especially since Ralph prefers to sit outside with his first cigarette). For the last month we have been taking classes together to make her more obedient. She now comes as soon as I call and stays sitting in “place” until I tell her otherwise. Along with obedience, she has become much more attached to me. All I do is look her way and she is by my side licking my ankle.

Ralph’s attachment comes with complications. Lola’s is much simpler (except that she eats my shoes). For me having Lola to love on has been a real help. And Ralph is not the least bit jealous.

Cognitive Impairment and Contentment, An Odd Couple

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Ralph and I have our best conversation while driving, the same way my kids and I did, and for the same reasons: we have each other’s undivided attention and we can’t escape.

So of course I was maneuvering my way through rush hour traffic the other day when he brought up his concern that his IQ has dropped seven points since what it was when he was a boy—this statistical tidbit from his first diagnostic testing lodged in his brain three years ago; he’s brought it up occasionally ever since but rarely so bluntly.

I responded that most people’s IQs probably drop as they get older, then added as an afterthought (how I tend to break bad news) that his memory loss has probably made his drop worse. He nodded. When I used the term Mild Cognitive Impairment, he flinched, but only slightly. (We don’t use the word Alzheimer’s aloud in our house.)

He brought up how well his medications Namenda and Donepezil have worked. He also said he was wasn’t worried that eventually they might stop working as well because his doctor had assured him that there will be new drugs in the process being discovered and he can take them when these stopped being effective—I don’t recall the doctor saying that exactly but I didn’t contradict him because, after all, who knows?

Then he took a puff of his e-cigarette and said, “Anyway, I’m content.”

“Did you say content?” I asked.

“Yes, I am very content these days.”

I could tell he meant what he was saying, not “fluffing the goods” as he likes to describe people whose stories he doesn’t believe. I felt glad for him, and definitely relieved.

But also, I have to admit, I was a bit jealous. Ok, a little resentful too.

Because I am not content with my life these days. It’s fine to be told what a good, caring wife I’ve become, but it’s kind of a backhanded compliment coming from friends with exciting careers going full steam ahead. Not that my career was ever that full of steam, but my ambitions have flagged. I find myself drifting along, adjusting my rhythm to Ralph’s, wondering if my own days of productivity are over along with his.

I’d rather blame the heat. Maybe once the temperature drops below ninety I’ll be full of focus and energy again, ready to care for Ralph and myself with equal vigor. I’m going to borrow from Ralph’s new playbook and assume the best….

Taxes + Alzheimer’s =Anxiety x Ten

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We were due a nice refund on our tax bill this year, but a few days ago a letter came from the IRS saying they would be “reviewing” our return before any payment would be sent or further action was taken.

I emailed my accountant, “Assume this is routine but thought you should know.” Less than a minute later she emailed me back, “This is not routine, but I’m not saying you have anything to worry about.”

Yikes. I have been through an audit and it was not fun.

The next day I received another letter, with a form to prove Ralph and I are really the ones who filed the return. So now I am trying to convince myself this review is part of the government’s crackdown on fraud returns and that the IRS doesn’t want to send our check to the wrong person.

But of course I am a nervous wreck.

I share this TMI (I know I know; talking about money is a turn off) because I cannot share it with Ralph.

And as I type the words “talking about money” I realize such talk is in fact one of the more intimate aspect of a marriage and that Ralph and I did a lot of such talk, weirdly enough, with gusto. Weirdly because money should have been a sticking point; he came from a working class family always on the brink of financial disaster while I was a pampered daughter of the bourgeoisie. He was a self-proclaimed capitalist, I was a righteous democratic socialist. But although as I’ve written here before, we argued about most things—childrearing, politics, how to spend our free time, where to live, what to eat, making friends, you name it and we argued—we seldom if ever argued over money. Money we discussed rationally.

We were in agreement that Ralph was the one with a talent for earning money, I was the one with patience for nuts and bolts bookkeeping. He went with his gut instinct. I played devil’s advocate. We could while away hours, days, TV seasons, analyzing a financial decision together. Even than nightmare audit was not a cause of tension; we were in it together, like partners in a school science project we discussed endlessly.

But I can’t talk about money issues with Ralph anymore. It’s not that he drives me crazy asking the same questions repeatedly (although he does) or that he might bring up a financial question at an inappropriate time (although the other night our dinner guest blanched when Ralph asked how much we had in the bank in front of her).

It’s that the anxiety of financial decision-making is more than Ralph can or wants to handle. He’s made it clear he doesn’t want to know too much but wants to feel secure. So I give him the basics and repeat them as often as necessary.

But knowing there is a difficult decision to make or a real problem (because I’ve foolishly spilled the beans) spikes his anxiety and the issue gets lodged like a loose widget in his cognitive gears. He can neither grasp it nor let it go.

There’s been no value in putting him through that pain. And selfishly, re-explaining a problem every time he returns to it has usually raised my own anxiety even higher than it is already. So I am keeping this new financial glitch to myself.

If this all sounds dark and self-pitying, there is an UPSIDE of sorts. As I teach myself how to think about money and compartmentalize that thinking, I see more clearly than ever that money, while necessary, is never the end in itself. As Ralph now jokes, as long as he has five bucks in his pocket and me on his arm, he’s happy.

“So, How Is Ralph Doing?”

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An old friend called to catch up yesterday. We talked for maybe 40 minutes, were nearing the end of the conversation, when she asked, “How is Ralph doing.”

She’d clearly been both hesitant and dying to ask. I had been equally hesitant and dying to answer.

This scenario seems to be repeated in one form or another multiple times a week these days. Everyone who knows, however vaguely, about Ralph’s cognitive problems wants an update but everyone seems slightly uncomfortable asking.

For my part, I am both reticent and overeager to share.

I always find myself answering, “He’s holding steady,” and then launching into all the little negative changes I’ve noticed, interrupting myself to say, “I know this sounds trivial but…”

Because, really, I don’t know how he is.

Ralph is scheduled for his annual testing in two months. As the appointment nears, I find myself thinking about it more and more with both dread and anticipation. (Ralph doesn’t know it is coming up and there is no reason to mention it; either he would quickly forget or the fact of the looming appointment would lodge like a lost jigsaw puzzle piece in his memory, making him anxious on a constant basis.)

Whenever I think that Ralph’s cognitive abilities have slipped, I wonder if I am over-analyzing. This testing will tell me if we are maintaining the status quo. But a sliver of me also wants to hear that my perception of Ralph’s condition worsening is correct.

This is not comfortable to admit. I realize it sounds as if I want Ralph’s diagnosis to be worse than it has been. Maybe part of me does; the Purgatory of our current status quo is certainly preferable to the Hell that may well lie ahead, but the gray haze of impermanence is difficult to sustain emotionally. Sometimes I just want to know the worst and get on with it.

Also I can’t help hoping that once we have definitively crossed the River Styx from MCI to Alzheimer’s, Ralph will be more willing to discuss our situation and plan for the future (ie. leaving the farm) in ways he will not consider now—of course I realize that not only is this wishful thinking but dangerous wishing because what is more likely is that once is denial defense system stops working, a spiral of distress will set in.

So I mostly hope that I am wrong, and that he IS holding steady…that as imperfect as things are, we can continue to muddle along as long as we can. Like any couple in a marriage full of ups and downs.

Has Ralph’s Cognitive Impairment Turned Me Into A Butterfly, Or A Moth?

 

IMG_0250[Fittingly this moth (or faded butterfly) has fossilized onto our garage wall]

The fishing trip Ralph was scheduled to go on last week didn’t happen. His fishing buddy’s wife got sick and needed him at home. Ralph did not mind AT ALL…”I am dreading it”he kept saying as he usually does before going anywhere… and I was secretly relieved that the four days I had resigned myself to giving up were suddenly restored. I briefly considered not telling anyone, using the found time as a holiday from the world.

But I didn’t.

Instead, I called my vegetable garden partner to do some playing among the squash and corn on Monday.IMG_0298                                                                   I spent all Tuesday morning at a business meeting I’d forgotten to cancel, then called my Tuesday walking buddy. Wednesday I went to my Pilates class and then drove a visiting photographer, sponsored by the ArtRez committee I’m increasingly involved with, into Atlanta to spend the day at the Martin Luther King Center. I made a lunch date on Thursday with a friend I knew needed cheering up. And on Friday I headed back to Atlanta for a meeting of the patient and family advisory committee at Emory’s Brain Center.

Then I picked up my daughter at the airport. She and her husband came to stay at the farm for the weekend and we all attended a wedding together.

In the years before Ralph’s diagnosis, this week would have seemed a whirlwind of social activity.

But as Ralph’s social world contracts, mine seems to expand, as my recent posts attest. This is in many ways a good thing. I love having new friends, love being engaged with the world around me. But I also recognize a certain manic need that I need to face more squarely….

I was the kind of child whose grandmother caught me hiding in the coat closet at family gatherings. As I’ve written here before, I was the introvert, Ralph the extrovert. He loved to go to parties and stay late. I wanted to stay home or leave early.

So why have I turned into this gadabout who joins committees, seeks out new friendships at every turn, commits to projects without thinking?

FEAR is the word that pops into my head.

Our life together, Ralph’s and mine, could so easily become a constant retreat from the world. And to be honest, I feel drawn to drift along on Ralph’s rhythms. To rise late and go to bed early. To spend my day not doing much or talking much.

What I fear is the attraction I feel to downshifting with Ralph.

A lot of dealing with a spouse with cognitive impairment revolves how much to accept, how much to fight and push back. I cannot see into Ralph’s brain or read his thoughts. I understand he is viewing the world differently these days and that his needs have changed. But we don’t really talk about it. I sense he doesn’t want to, and I am not eager to press. All I can do is to [try to] accept who he is at the moment and not make unfair demands.

Because Ralph has a reason, an excuse, to withdraw from more active engagement with the world. (And dementia activists aside, he has made that choice.)

The problem is that sometimes that withdrawal is scarily appealing to me. Is that appeal innate within the mentally and physically lazy woman I’ve always been? Or is it a sign that I am becoming that dreaded condition called “old.” Neither option sounds too good.

I’m not about to cut back on my friends and commitments in order to burrow into a domestic burrow with Ralph. But I am going to work for a little more balance.

Keeping the Stories Alive Part 2: My Infamous Adventures in Recording

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Many of you will be glad to know I followed your advice and have begun recording Ralph’s stories.

Sort of.

My saga of good intentions gone awry began a few days after my last posting–and the many comments encouraging me to get those stories down–when I brought up to Ralph the possibility of collecting his stories. He was not exactly excited.

“I can’t write it all down.”                                                                                                                                                 “Then we’ll tape them.”

“I don’t like my voice on tape.”                                                                                                                                                      “We can tape and then transcribe onto the computer.”

“I don’t type.”                                                                                                                                                                                     “I’ll do the transcribing.”

“I don’t have any stories worth telling.”                                                                                                                                          “Let’s make a list of ideas.”

“Why are we doing this again.”                                                                                                                                                          “To give as Christmas presents to the kids.”

That last seemed to get to him. So I wrote down a list of ideas and we talked a little about each until his memories of his youth started tiptoeing back.

The plan was that I record Ralph on a digital recorder—the kids would not want cassettes from the apparently obsolete machine I have used for years—and then transfer the stories to flash drives for the kids. My local Apple guy told me to go to Radio Shack for the best choices and assured me that all I needed to do was make sure the digital recorder was “Mac compatible”. That sounded easy.

I bought the recorder that clearly said “Mac compatible” and the guy at Radio Shack spent half an hour teaching me how to use it.

That afternoon, Ralph and I sat on the porch for our first story. The hog killing. He complained he could barely remember, but once he got started, there was no stopping him. One remembered detail sent him toward another. The result was a great story.

Ralph was hooked.

He immediately launched into a second story about his Aunt Della, including generations of family lore.

Then I tried to transfer the stories to my computer and save them. The directions, at least the ones in English, were vague at best. I was able to plug the recorder into the computer and a file would show up, but nothing would save. I am not the world’s greatest techy, but I sensed something was seriously wrong above and beyond my ineptitude.

Although Ralph was raring to go with more stories, I was afraid to continue.

I returned to Radio Shack the next morning. My still helpful clerk Corey couldn’t get the computer to save the recorded file. He suggested I go to the Apple guy. The Apple guy was also willing to help. After much fiddling and frustration, as closing time approached he graciously installed some kind of music program he was semi-confident would take care of things. If not, I was to come back in two days, after his day off, and he’d figure things out.

Guess what still didn’t work.

I went back. Apple guy called Apple. He then apologized. Being “Mac compatible” is evidently not adequate after all. I went back to Radio Shack. Although I had obviously used the recorder, Corey gallantly exchanged it for “MP-3 compatible.” Then he spent another half an hour teaching me how to transfer from recorder to computer.

I came home and told Ralph we’d need to re-record his the stories he’d already told because they were lost.

“Why are we recording these stories again?”                                                                                                                      “Christmas presents.”                                                                                                                                                                    “Oh yeah, that’s right.”

But it was already time for dinner and then bedtime. The next day I was tied up, then yesterday he had his art class. So here we are three days later.

Ralph is ready to start recording. He likes the idea of giving the flash drive presents. “It’s great we’re doing this.”

It will be. The problem is that now I’m not sure I remember how.