Losing It

"Last weekend our old neighborhood group got together; it happens about four times a year," he says. "We all built on the same block years ago and we sit around and B.S. about what happened in the '50s and all that stuff. I'll be sitting there and I'll go to say something I'm thinking about and then I can't. It don't really want to come out. They don't even know it. I don't talk a hell of a lot anyhow. They are all talkers and I just sit there and be quiet--look at this guy, look at that guy, and pretty soon things get cleared up again. Well, not exactly cleared up but--"

So you'll be listening to people but you won't really know who they are for a while?

"Yeah, that's right."

So you have to be patient?

"Oh yeah. And if you have been in that situation before, it makes it that much easier."

It weighs more heavily on Lois, but she's used to bearing a lot. She raised their four children while Murray worked his crazy hours for the railroad--"When he was home he wasn't so much like a dad as an uncle that came to visit," she says--and through the years they both came to value their independence. As Murray has lost his to the disease, it's obviously been hard. Even Lois admits she has always verbally dominated Murray. Now his Alzheimer's disease has given them each a trump card: She can always dispute his version of events; he can always say he doesn't remember what she told him.

"Sometimes my dad will walk into the living room and say, 'Which way is up?' then turn around and wink at me," says Joellen. "He's pretty sharp and lucid sometimes, and during those times I think he says to himself, 'I'm going to give her hell.'" But Joellen also remembers a time about a year and a half ago when her father got lost in a shopping center. When she found him, he was crying and panic-stricken. The first words out of his mouth were, "Where's your mother?"

"He'll come in," Lois says, "and I'll ask if he's shut the garage door. He tells me that he did, and then a neighbor comes by at 10:30 at night to say that our garage door is open. He went to bed the other night and left six lights and the television on. The other day after I'd told him to put on some deodorant, he came back and there were two big white spots underneath his arms--on the shirt.

"I do a lot of praying for patience, but so many times God says no. Because I holler a lot; sometimes I really let loose. And he ignores me," she says, breaking into a hearty laugh. "And that isn't brand-new either.

"He hardly laughs anymore. Sometimes I can get kind of a grin out of him; mostly it's just nervous chuckles. When it was just the two of us before he didn't laugh much, but I knew how to trigger it. We liked to dance. He's forgotten how. We went to a wedding last June and he didn't know where to put his feet. We used to mostly polka--now that's gone. Music is often the last thing Alzheimer's people lose," she says.

To alleviate some of her burden, Murray goes to daycare three or four times a week at Lake Ridge Health Care Center just a mile down the road, where he often has breakfast and lunch and reads the morning paper. "They'll latch on and keep a conversation going if you say something," he observes with a note of appreciation in his voice; when the weather is nice, he sits out on the sundeck with three or four other regulars and tries to rustle up a card game. Murray has played cribbage since the days on the farm when there was no electricity and the nearest neighbors were 15 miles away. Nowadays he lasts no more than a game or two before his concentration fades.

For her part, Lois attends a weekly support group of Alzheimer's caregivers. "A gal in that group asked me, 'What are you going to do when he gets violent?' And I said, 'Pray that his heart takes him first.' I guess many of them go violent or go comatose. When he stops knowing me it will be difficult. Right now he just doesn't know my birthday. But then he never has. We can't afford a private hospital. If and when the time comes, I hope to get him into the VA."

any medical professionals believe that the dominant memories in Alzheimer's patients are often the ones that confer a sense of identity. Most of all, Murray Tate remembers the railroad. When Lois brings out pictures of Murray at a reunion with his railroad buddies last year, there is a uncharacteristically broad smile on his face. "Murray was one of the best," says Al Fohrman, a retired brakeman who worked alongside him for better than two decades. "He could sense when things weren't quite right, when you needed to pick up the pace a little bit or get something straightened out. Very few people I ever worked with had such a feel for the job. We worked long, tough hours together--probably spent more time together than we did with our wives."

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