Growing up, a summer week spent in Arkansas was always a week for relaxation, shenanigans, and just the right amount of humid, hazy boredom. This summer, these typical qualifiers were not to be had.
For the past four years, I have been a responsible young adult and held summer jobs in which I was fortunate enough to be allowed a week off, but only one week. And each summer, I chose to designate my vacation time to spending seven days in Northern Michigan with my immediate family and our family friends. Not going down to Arkansas to visit my mom’s side of the family, her only remaining family besides her sister.
On the twelve-hour drive south with my mom, I thought of the years long gone, when my brothers, Arkansas cousins and myself would drive tractors around the family farm, shoot rifles at junkyard toilets, tend to stray puppy litters, hold three-hour ping-pong matches, and watch too much Matlock. I knew this trip would be different: my great aunt Liz has Alzheimer’s, and it has come to light so subtly and yet so rapidly all at once, that nobody quite knows what to do about it. Still, I brought a tower of magazines to read and even my acoustic guitar, hoping the solitude of the small farm town would force me to pick up the instrument after months of neglect.
When my mom and I arrived that first evening, there was no potato salad, cucumber-tomato salad, and ham feast awaiting us. Aunt Liz grew flustered by the sudden company and demanded to be taken for a car ride, without us. We quickly learned from my great uncle Johny that she no longer likes lots of people around, she can’t walk without assistance, she doesn’t know when she needs to use the restroom, and there was a chance she may faint while being moved.
Aunt Liz, a woman who always nurtured me and soothed me and made sure there was plenty of chocolate cake in my belly — my Southern grandma — is now essentially a different person.
You know when there’s something in your life beyond repair, so you try to mend everything surrounding it? That, for my mom and me, was Arkansas 2015.
Equipped with my iTunes library and some questionable cleaning solutions, the two of us got to work straight away. The first task was to go through all of the cabinets and sort out all of the expired foods, spices and medicines. Next was to put in new shelf liner atop the sticky old layer, then scrub down the outside of all said cabinets. When my mom got to cleaning the two bathrooms, she came out of the smaller, mustard-hued room and commented, “you know, I don’t think it would be that hard to tear down the wallpaper and repaint that thing.”
And it wasn’t. Not the first layer, at least. The wallpaper was original, nearly half a century old, and so only a thin layer of it peeled away with ease. We used a blue, mucousy spray to aid in scraping off the rest, and that’s when my mom essentially kicked me out of the bathroom, urging me to cook dinner. The bathroom was her disaster to remedy, to caulk and sand and clean and paint. To return to a normal state.
So I cooked. All week long, I made green salads, apple crisp, dishpan cookies, sautéed summer squash, creamed corn, chicken-ricotta meatballs, anything. I even made my own version of the cucumber-tomato salad I had come to love receiving when in the south. All of this thrilled Uncle Johny, to have home-cooked meals once again, but I knew that my offerings were only temporary. On more than one occasion he asked if I’d like to stay on as an in-home chef, and I knew he was only partly joking.
There were moments of clarity, when Aunt Liz would answer questions with conviction, when we could hold a conversation that went beyond yeses and no’s. My mom’s sister, Suzy, flew down part way through the week, too, which brought a little more life into the house. I found her one night scrubbing at the floor moldings all along the kitchen walls. The days were generally strained, so that by the time night spread and Uncle Johny was asleep on the couch, my mom, aunt and I would be silly with exhaustion. Drinking red wine out of solo cups and eating my dishpan cookies, we looked through old family photos of the farm when it was a dairy farm, not a soy and catfish farm. We pieced together the lineage of mysterious relatives, told old stories and, of course, like out of a Traveling Pants or Ya Ya Sisterhood novel, we laughed until we cried.
The three of us left Arkansas quietly, on a Saturday morning just as the sun was rising. I don’t think any of us wanted to trivialize the experience with sappy comments; I know I didn’t.
I really can’t imagine what it is like to live constantly, or constantly be close by, to a loved one with Alzheimer’s. It is truly one of our race’s crueler, more mysterious diseases — the loss of memory and the mind is a frightening concept to me, and I didn’t fully understand the heartbreaking effect it can have on a family until I experienced it in my own. And so to all of those who care for a person with Alzheimer’s, to them I extend a great amount of respect and sympathy. For now, I will keep my Arkansas family in my thoughts, with the goal to not wait another four years to return, and maybe even mail a batch of dishpan cookies to Uncle Johny.