My Alzheimer's fight: Shaping other minds

Bill Lyon talks to students in the class in creative writing that he teaches at Delaware County Community College.

Fourth in a series.

I remember . . .

actually, I don't.

That's the trump card, isn't it? Of all the indignities that dementia can lay upon us, memory loss is the most familiar, and the most mourned, for it visits us in disguises, hidden in the groping for remote controls that have gone to who knows where. We rummage behind the sofa and through empty purses in a fruitless search for . . . well, what, exactly, and, and hey, if I knew I wouldn't be asking you, moron.

We come into a room and wonder why. We turn in mincing little pirouettes and ask ourselves: What am I looking for? You start out calm and composed but as whatever is eluding you remains locked somewhere in your frontal lobe - or is it your cerebral vortex, I forget - your blood pressure rises and you ask the questions that bedevil us all sooner or later: Am I losing my mind? Is it Al - my nemesis Alzheimer's? Or just something that comes naturally with age?

How come I can remember the lyrics from a long-forgotten ballad, but I, for the life of me, can't remember what I had for lunch?

There's long-term memory and medium-term memory and the ultimate indignity, the dreaded short-term memory, which involves the marching from room to room, fuming and venting, and where-oh-where are my &*#@ glasses, and the answer, of course, is on top of your head, you poor pathetic wretch.

Thanks, and what's your name again?

Parking lot roulette

So there I stand, forlorn and achingly alone, in the vast asphalt jungle where acres and acres of cars and vans stretch to the far horizon, with a midwinter sleet storm pelting me with ice daggers, feet numb, grocery pushy cart mocking me: "Try that row . . . no, the one over there . . . told ya you'd forget."

Well of course I forget. It seems to be the one thing in life that I can count on.

My plight makes for great sport for Al.

It is for precisely nights like this that someone, bless 'em, invented the clicker, that little fail-safe button that blinks on your lights and emits a chirping that sounds like frenzied crickets making whoopee.

Never leave home without one. Or two. Or, better yet, let someone else do the driving, because . . .

You're a menace

Without serious incident I managed to drive for nearly 60 years, meaning I was blessed 10 times over. Then, when I entered my 70s, a slow unraveling came calling.

Al, of course. Although at the time I didn't recognize or suspect him. After all, I was functioning on all cylinders . . . except . . .

Night driving. Did you notice the glare from those oncoming headlights? It's enough to blind you. I don't remember them being that dangerous. And who moved those median strips I keep bumping over? And I seem to take up two spaces in the parking lot and I need three passes to straighten it out.

And here's the crusher: I cut off the car behind me and it was all he could do to stay out of the ditch. Horns blaring and tires squealing, my heart beating like a bongo drum, I slowed to a crawl all the way home.

And then I did it again.

And again.

Narrow miss after narrow miss.

Here I was, nearing 75, with the attendant decline in reaction time, wearing trifocals, blasting down the road in a four-ton missile, my mind occupied on a dozen things, none of which involves paying attention to the clotted traffic, and hey, if I step on it now I can just squeeze in behind those two 18-wheelers . . .

The man in the white lab coat sets his face in a worrisome scowl and tells me in slow and emphatic tones: "You should not be driving. I repeat . . . you . . . should . . . not . . . be . . . driving."

The culprit in all of this is depth perception. We see openings that are not there, or have been grievously misjudged. We are one small miscalculation, one squint away, from something horrific.

So I gave up driving.

It sucked. Still does.

It's like being under house arrest. You've spent most of your life free to get up and go without hesitation, and now you are dependent upon others and feel like a moocher.

You can pass the time pouting and sulking and immersed in self-pity - my personal favorite for the first couple of years.

I was reminded of an old saying: With age comes wisdom . . . but sometimes age comes alone.

Fortunately, I am not alone. I have a deep pool of taxi service from which to draw. Family. Friends. Neighbors. Vans for seniors. You can always find something.

And they make this possible . . .

Return to learn

I've always thought that if I hadn't been a writer I would have liked trying to be a teacher. It's such a noble profession and the impact you have, both good and bad, can last a lifetime.

For the last five years I have had the best of both worlds: I teach a course at Delaware County Community College. Creative writing.

Class lasts from 6:30 to 8:30. The students, most of them, are coming right from work, and range in age from 18 to 80. They have included a private detective from Upper Darby, an au pair from France, a retired CIA agent, an Episcopal minister, a young man with MS - he's my hero. There was an exchange student from Ireland. And another from Germany. Some hair dressers. Nurses - I have a soft spot in my heart for them. A plumber. A contractor. A landscaper. An Eagle Scout. Retired teachers.

All share the same yearning: Somewhere along the way they wondered if they could write.

They have come to the right place, because my intent is to nurture and encourage, to foster an abiding respect for the English language (which is under relentless siege from those little handheld computers that limit social intercourse to 144 characters, leaving us with a bastardized vocabulary and the slow erosion of literacy - please forgive an old man his rant).

The course lasts 16 hours total, over eight weeks. It is limited to nine students, thus ensuring that each student has a turn every week. The first class is orientation, a couple of my readings, introductions, and this assignment:

There's a knock on the door, and it is opened to reveal a fabled creature, the Man from Mars.

 

Commence writing. You have 20 minutes.

Each student, in turn, reads what he or she has written. The trepidation melts. Turns out, much to their delight, they are better than they imagined they could be.

Over the next seven Tuesdays they will bring what they have written - a subject of their choosing. Essay. Short story. Start of a novel. There are no limits, no boundaries. Remember the title of the course - creative writing. Unleash your imagination.

Such a wonderful opportunity - you write seven pieces and read them before a jury of your peers.

When it clicks, ah, really clicks, and they are smitten, when they have fallen in love with words, then it's hard to tell who has gained the most, the Return to Learn brigade, or me.

Take that, Al.

Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer sports columnist. lyon1964@comcast.net

Next Sunday: Balance and being lost.