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Monuments

A friend sent me a message: “Go to news. Notre Dame is on fire.”  I leapt up from the computer and for the next two hours or so I was riveted to the T.V screen as I watched the Cathedral, the heart of Paris burning.  I was saddened.

My Bert and I have had the privilege of visiting famous monuments and landmarks around the world.  They remain in my memory, in my psyche, and yes in my heart.

On separate occasions I have cried, laughed, cried and laughed at the Berlin Wall.  I even own a small piece of it from when it was torn down. My Bert and I raced from Amsterdam to Berlin to witness the ‘unzipping’ of the refurbished Brandenburg Gate by President Bill Clinton.

I got goose bumps the first time I saw Westminster Abbey, The Blue Mosque, The Great Pyramid of Giza, Notre Dame de Paris, The Taj Mahal and so many more.   There are entire cities that I consider to be monuments.  Jerusalem, London, Paris, Athens, Rome, The Vatican, Amsterdam all come to mind.

Whenever I think of Denmark the small sculpture of The Little Mermaid brings a smile as do the Manneken Pis in Brussels which dates from 1388.  They are beloved symbols that give a unique identity to a particular place.  They are more than interesting sculptures.

The Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado means we are in Rio de Janeiro.  Going to the opera at the Sydney Opera house is one bragging right I hold dear. And you know you are in Australia.

As I looked at Notre Dame I was grateful that we had toured it as a couple, as a family, and with travel companions.  I wondered if we would live to see the ‘after’ even if only virtually.

As the fire burned my thoughts were turbulent.  I was filled with dismay and sadness.  I am not Roman Catholic.  That did not matter.  I am neither a Parisian nor French.  That did not matter.  I was looking at an iconic symbol.  That is what a monument is.  A symbol that is universal that can appeal to anyone. 

Great literature, art, music, dance, drama, architecture are ways in which we showcase our creativity, share our talents and demonstrate the human need for beauty that transcends the mundane.   They speak to the soul.  Monumental works like Notre Dame validate that need and give credence to Keats’: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

When we toured Notre Dame the fact that it was the keeper of the Crown of Thorns was awe inspiring.  I enjoyed seeing the art, the craftsmanship that went into the building but uppermost in my mind was the history.  The same words I said then came back to me as I uttered them again: “If only these walls and stones could talk.”  Notre Dame burned at the beginning of Holy Week.  Ironic, isn’t it?

I wondered if the egotistical Napoleon was turning in his grave recalling his glory when he crowned himself Emperor of France in Notre Dame.   He had no great love for either the Pontiff or religiosity so he may have some ambivalence about this destruction.  As the spire fell I wondered if all those nobles who travelled past its doors in tumbrels to be guillotined found some macabre similarity to their own fate.  They lost their heads and now Notre Dame was losing its own.

As I mourned the passing I wondered if some were cheering that this was a symbol belonging to ‘the other’ not to them.  History, literature, religious fervour, art, music, wars, and love are all part of Notre Dame and they were fighting for space in my thoughts as I watched.   That is a monument.  It means everything to some and something to everyone else.  You may be indifferent to it but it cannot be ignored.

The Meander:   Over one billion Euros were donated within forty eight hours for the restoration of Notre Dame.  Extraordinary!  I cannot remember any human disaster that raised so much in so short a time. Hmm…

Experts estimate that it will take up to fifteen years to rebuild Notre Dame. With utter conceit I looked over at my monument, my Bert, and wonder if it will take up to fifteen years for his spire to topple.

Howsoever long it takes, if I am still alive, I will rejoice for one and mourn the other.  The Light and dark together as ever.

Shoehorns

My Bert puts on his shoes using a shoehorn.  It has always been thus. 

The only time a shoehorn gets near my feet is when I am being fitted by a sales assistant.   My thumbs work for me. Always have.

My Bert is so dependent on a shoehorn that if there is none around he will fashion one from a magazine, folded paper, the handle of a spoon, a credit card, or my thumbs.  He is inventive and adept whether sitting or standing.

Shoehorns now for me have become analogous with my Bert’s aging and Alzheimer disease.  When his knee became arthritic he had to abandon the short stubby shoehorn and get one longer.  After his knee replacement the shoehorn became even longer so he could put on his shoes from a standing position. 

Among the travel essentials was the shoehorn.  We have forgotten them in places like the River Jordan and the Dead Sea and other places where we had to take off our shoes on our sightseeing explorations.     I still remember scouring a market in The Gambia looking for a shoehorn!

I have helped my Bert with his shoes and in disgust have discarded the shoehorn and resorted to my thumbs.  They work.

We are in the shoe store.  I have three pairs for my Bert to fit.  Every shoehorn is long.  My Bert is sitting on a padded bench and trying to get a shoe on.  The shoehorn only gets in the way.  An assistant comes by and suggests he stands up to use it.  I become the supporting post.  This is not working.  The assistant tries to help.  Bert hangs on to me and he thinks we are dancing.  He has completely forgotten the reason for us being upright.  He giggles and tells me there is a woman fiddling with his foot.

The bad shoulder begins to hurt.   My Bert wants to dance.  The assistant is sweating and I am sure the mumble I hear is not fit to print.   It is a Herculean task but finally one foot is in.  It is declared to be ‘good’.   I choose the opposite foot from another box and with equal effort gets it on.  My Bert walks around a few times and declares that they both fit and are ‘good’.

I buy both pairs.  I am never doing this again.  It is hazardous to my health!

“Paula, do you have a short shoehorn?  This one is too long to use to help Bert with his shoes.”  The question comes from our wonderful helper who was on her knees, valiantly struggling to use the shoehorn.  The shaft came up to my Bert’s knee and she was working awkwardly with the curved portion at his heel.

Laughter burst out of me as I thought my Bert is like the shoehorns.   I decide I better give an explanation for the mirth before she decides to call in to her office to say she has two clients on her hands and to please send in the emergency squad.

“Your question has reminded me of that old phrase ‘Once a man, twice a child.’   I am thinking how Bert is living his second childhood in conjunction with his shoehorns.   First it was the tiny shoehorn which with age gradually grew longer and longer.   Alzheimer disease has set him back to the tiny shoehorn which he can no longer use by himself.”

The laugh was bittersweet. 

Helping my Bert with his shoes is agonizingly slow.   He has to be in a standing position. I direct him on each step of the process while he holds on to the wall.  Sure, I could still use my thumbs.  It is the getting down to the floor which has become the problem.   Actually, I could get down but how would I get back up?  Calling 9-1-1 is not an option.   I smile to myself again.   I am thinking about having a crane on call.  Nah!

I can’t help but wonder how we will cope when he can no longer stand by himself.

The Meander:  My Bert and a shoehorn.   It is not such an odd juxtaposition.    He has been known to put on his slippers with a shoehorn. Then again, I am the one who sees the sublime in the ridiculous.  Only problem is that in this case what is sublime?  What is ridiculous?  I can only laugh.  Laugh with me so I do not cry.

Time for Sale

I am dreaming.  I am in a hurry.  There are others also scurrying here and there.   I look at my wrist but there is no watch there.  I call out that I need to get a watch but they should carry on.  I am in a car driving fast down a hill.  I pass a large crowd and shout: “I have to buy a watch and time!” I wake up.

The remnant of the dream remains and disturbs.  I take a few deep breaths and think how wonderful it would be if one could buy time.   Every caregiver would want to be first in line.

The dream has dredged up the watch seller we met in Gibraltar.  What a character he was!

His stand was in a prime location.  Going or coming you had to walk by that stand.   There were all kinds of watches for the amazing sum of ‘$10 dollars each or three for $30!’ he would holler.

It was a bargain and a smile in one short sentence.   However, that was not all.

What drew and held a crowd entranced was the non-stop patter of the seller.  He had an English accent which I thought was Cockney.  I asked him if he was born within the sound of the Bow Bells to which he answered:

“The sound of the bow Bells? Darling, mi pregnant mum was at church and when the darn thing rang she jumped so high that out I popped.  I tell you, love you canna get more Cock(pause)ney  (wink, wink) than that.”   Groans and laughter ensued.  It seemed he had an endless number of jokes, sly remarks, double entendres to keep us entertained and buying his watches.  Purchasing a cheap watch in Gibraltar suddenly became de rigueur

I bought three watches.  My rationale was that as frequent travellers it was good to wear these cheap versions for sightseeing.

The next year we happened to be back in Gibraltar.  Our watch seller was at his post.  His patter was loud, persuasive and entertaining as usual.  He looked out, saw us and shouted: “Aye, there’s mi customer, come back from –where you from mi darling? ‘Canada’ all the way from Canada to buy mi watches.  Want another three mi love?” 

We walked the main street for a bit and returned just as he was turning over the stand to his son to take a break.

“Good line you use about a returning customer,” I say. He looked at me and said:

“I do remember you.  Your husband got in on my act and actually persuaded people to buy the watches telling them the spiel alone was worth the money.  Then you bought three watches I am sure you really did not need and for Chrissakes, it is sorta hard for you to disguise yourselves.  Stuck in my head is the fun loving, happy, odd couple.  Come, have a cuppa and a beer for you my friend?” We comply. Bert won the paying the bill battle.

We are back in Gibraltar.  This time I am on a mission to get a good watch.  Gibraltar is a duty free port so prices are better here.  I am happy with my purchase.

We stop at our favourite cheap watch seller.  He hails us again, he tells people to ask us about the fabulous bargains we have made and how we come specifically to Gibraltar to buy his watches.  The patter is non-stop as usual and entertaining.  He beckons us over and says: “OK, which of these are you getting this year?”   “This year, I am not getting any.  I just bought a lovely one just down the road.”  I point in the direction of the shops.  He laughs, tut-tuts, shakes his head, and in a loud voice says:

“Oh, you did, did you?  Let me tell you something, darling, you got snookered.  I bet you paid more than ten times what my beautiful watches cost!  Come here mi luv; let me tell you a little secret.  That expensive watch you bought tells exactly the same time as mine.”

Amid the laughter I hear ‘true’, ‘that’s fer sure’.  I think Bert and I are laughing the hardest.

It is about five years when we get back to Gibraltar.  We make a beeline to our cheap watch vendor.  No, I do not need a watch.  We just want to say ‘hello’ and listen to the patter.  His son is at the stand.  Bert asks after his father.  He has died.  We offer our condolences.  We are sad.  An errant thought: He ran out of time. He would appreciate it. I bought a watch in his memory and walk on under a suddenly dimmed sky.

The Meander:   A thief snatched my watch as we were walking back to our hotel in Santiago, Chile.  After the anger, feeling violated and acknowledging with thanks the care of the good Samaritans who came to our aid, I turned to Bert and said:   “He will be so disappointed that the ‘gold’ watch is a ten dollar Gibraltar special.”  We begin to laugh hysterically.

Our good Samaritans slowly leave and I think they are still debating whether we were happy to be unharmed or that the incident had been so traumatic as to leave us unhinged.

By the way, those Gibraltar specials lasted from 18 months to over five years and kept the same time!

Friendship

This is not friendship day or week or month.  It seems to me that I get a beautiful, sweet message about friendship and friends almost every week and they all end with an order to send it on to my friends because it is friendship day or week.  If I should add them all up there would be a thousand weeks in a year just for friendship.    My friends know how much I value them so I do not mind getting friendship messages but I need no reminders.   My friendship is on tap every day all year.  And it is a two way street.

My friends cross all boundaries, cultural, religious, social, and economic.  There are friends I have not yet met.  I have often opined that I was not blessed with a large family but I certainly made up for that lack with a host of dear friends.  Better yet, I get to choose them even as they choose me!   My friends live all over world and all are dear to me.   My friends fill that need of humans to have companionship who share a commonality of purpose, desires, mores and love.   There are all occasion friends and special event friends but they are all friends of the heart.  I laugh with them; cry with them and the hugs are wonderful.   My friends are full of kindness.   I write about one of my darker days and I get a beautiful bouquet with this card enclosed.

I laughed!   What a friend.    I have been sustained by the outpouring of love since that post.  I was refreshed. 

So it is with a full heart that I say “Thank You” to my friends.  Thank you for giving me strength, love and courage to carry on.  Thank you for sharing the ups, the downs and the in between.  Thank you for being by my side to laugh, to cry, to rejoice at successes and to commiserate with me at disappointments.

Thank you for bringing me back to the light when I have those dark days.  Thank you for the laughs, for laughing with me and laughing at me. 

The Meander:  My friends make the anguish less and me more.  Thank you!

.

Birthday Appraisal

I have just celebrated a birthday.    On the morning itself I turned to my Bert and said:”You can wish me Happy Birthday”.  “Oh, is it your birthday? “Yes”.  “Happy Birthday, Sweet Pea.”

The telephone rings and it is the first greeting of the day. “Who was that?”   “That was our son and daughter-in-law.  They were singing the birthday song to me.”   I begin to sing and he joins in.  “ Are they coming today?”  “No.  The family celebration was on Monday.  We had a lovely meal and you really enjoyed your shoe-string French fries.”  “Oh”.

My birthday was wonderful and different. It began with a Caregiver Wellness programme which included Dancercise, Music Therapy and Meditation. There was a fabulous lunch, then dinner with friends at a Japanese restaurant.  We sat at the Teppanyaki Bar.  My Bert exclaimed as the flames shot up towards the ceiling: “Gosh, I am HOT!”  Naturally everyone seated at our station laughed.  The evening was filled with laughter.

My birthday is a time of introspection; of reviewing the past year and looking with hope towards a brighter year.  That has not changed.

However, this year my astrologist friend told me that this was a special year for all who are born on March 21st.  She referred me to an entry in Google quoted here:

Your horoscope for March 21 to 27, 2019. This is no ordinary change of season. Spring has sprung on a super full moon in Libra and with the sun in Aries supplying added life force to Chiron in Aries, a transit that happens once every 50 years. … Aries is the sign of new beginnings, fresh starts, and action.”

I kept on reading the lengthy article as I was curious.  It proved interesting until I got to such deep astrological pontification on ‘Solar Return’, ‘square aspect’ and ‘Mars-North Node aspect’ the latter supposedly having great impact on my relationships and love life.  I am a caregiver for my Bert.   I can teach all aspects, astrological or not about love.  I gave up on the long form and with tongue firmly in cheek parsed the above short version specifically for ME, the birthday girl.  Here goes:

“This is no ordinary change of season” – It never is in Canada.  Snow in May and golfers teeing up in December are par for the course. Groan.  For me the seasons change on a daily basis and they are: a good day, a bad day, a day when brain cells die, a miracle day of almost normal.

“Spring has sprung” – Hey, hold your horses.  It is still only March!   Meteorologists will tell you that spring arrives on March 1st.. Huh?  Yet March does bring hope for warmer days.  I can feel that spring is in the air and I celebrate the fact of life, new life, my life, my day.

“A super full moon in Libra”- I did see the super full moon.  It was heavenly! (Geez!).  I did not care that it was in Libra or Libya or wherever.  It was full.  It was bright.   I was happy to see it.

“The sun in Aries”- If I had the power the sun would always be in Aries and every other Zodiac sign.  I am a child of Light.

“… supplying added life force to Chiron in Aries…every 50 years”:  Yes, the sun is a life force.  The rest being Greek to me I went to Google.    I found this among other soon to be forgotten tidbits:

In astrology, Chiron is referred to as the “wounded healer,” and on Feb. 18, this strange, and oh-so-unique, comet will conclude an eight-year-long transit through the dreamy sign of Pisces, and slide into fiery Aries until the year 2027. Naturally, this asteroid’s energetic influence will play a role in both our lives, and in the collective overall. So, yeah, this is definitely a big deal.”

No big deal to me as I will be long dead before this fascinating phenomenon comes around in 50 years.  Neither does being on fire for the next eight years inspire jubilation.  Also, since being sidetracked is an ever present danger when on the internet I also found out that Chiron is a comet, a key, the biggest superpower we have which helps us unlock our greatest gift from the heavens.    Somewhat oxymoronic for a “wounded healer” I thought.

The best was last.

“Aries is the sign of new beginnings, fresh starts and action.”  Every day is a new beginning.  For my Bert I could say every minute is a fresh start.  As a caregiver I am always doing.   I saw this as being given permission to be positive, to never give up.

The Meander:   Astrological prognostication or not, life is not dictated by our stars but by ourselves.   We can choose how we will overcome the vicissitudes thrown in our path.  I choose that no matter how dark the day I will try to face the challenges with a positive attitude for the rest of the journey.  We will make it with a little help from our friends… and astrology.

A Darker Day

Alzheimer disease has been called The Long Goodbye.    It is also The Long Grieving.  Over the last few weeks I have watched my Bert lose some more brain cells.  Now I am more instantly aware that it is happening.  That was not always so.  Prior to this it would take some prolonged period of imperceptible change for the loss to be noticed.

One morning he had his yogurt after his sandwich as usual.  The next morning he does not eat it and I ask: “Don’t you want your yogurt today?”

My Bert looks at his plate, his cup, and his knife then picks up the banana peel and says:” Oh, yes, I do.  I want my yogurt.”   He begins to put the peel in his mouth.  I stop him and give him the yogurt.  I do not wait for this to recur.   I know yogurt is now another item that befuddles his mind.  His brain no longer recognizes that so familiar item which has been a part of his breakfast for as long as I can remember.

My Bert now tells me goodnight and says he is going upstairs to bed.  There is no upstairs in our home.  In fact we live in a condo and have always lived in bungalows.  He needs to be reassured that yes, this is our bedroom, yes, this is our bed, yes, I will be sleeping in that same bed, yes we will be sleeping together and yes, Jan, Gerard, Ossie, Wendy, Marg, Meintje and a few more people, all who are already dead will be sleeping with us too.    I offer no correction nor explanation.   If my Bert is less anxious having them with us, well, come on in.

Each day my Bert tells me repeatedly how much he loves me.  I wonder if he is saying it to reassure himself.  Maybe it is just that familiar phrase he has been saying for so long and so often.  Maybe he likes the smile it brings and the:”I love you too.” I know it has not lost its meaning for him nor for me.

I sometimes catch a vacant look, accompanied by an unintelligible mumble.  I wonder what is going on in his brain.  Do the amyloid plaques cause any sensation as they fill up and kill off another cell?   What about the tau tangles? Do they emit any sound as the deterioration accelerates?  There is no indication of pain but I wonder if there is anything, any sensation that tells my Bert something is amiss.  I will never know.

My Bert is entering the late stages of dementia.  I am in the beginning stages of grieving.   

To see the Light you must live in the now, yet I cannot forget what was.   I remember the good times, the fun we had, the amazing life we lived but I am remembering in the past tense as if my Bert is the past.  I censor myself.  My Bert is still here.  There are still moments of absolute clarity and I can see what used to be in the here and now. 

Now I understand the ambiguity of memory.  It can be soothing and at the same time cruel.  Memory is the handmaiden of grief.  The mind of its own volition brings up memories and by definition that means the past.   I am remembering the then, the before and it is making the now unbearable.  The mind and my memories are not static or finite.  Therefore, neither is the grief.  I am grieving the loss of yesterday, last year, our beginning and yesterday.   My memory meanders with the mind’s stream of consciousness, skittering hither, thither and yon and grief is its partner.

My Bert is slowly leaving me.

The Light dims as I contemplate the inevitable.

Imagining the after is unendurable.

There is still some light.  The loss is not complete.  I grieve but do not yet mourn.

Not yet.

The Meander:  My respect and admiration for caregivers is immeasurable.   No matter how special this particular challenge is, the journey is heart breaking.  It tests the will.   It is an obligation made bearable by love.   You have no choice.     I know.  I love.  I hurt.  I am a caregiver too. 

Storytelling in Motion – Bodrum

We flew to Istanbul one week before the cruise began so we could explore that ancient city at leisure.  It would be our third exploration but there is so much to see and shopping in the Grand Bazaar deserves a trip in itself.  Our hotel surpassed our expectations and then here we were ready to board our luxury yacht. 

Yes!  As fans of small ship cruising we were about to board a five-mast staysail schooner, one of the largest sailing cruise ships in the world.   No, I am not a sailor but that is the description of what would be our floating hotel for the next seven days.   The number of passengers on board was a mere 294.  

The first exquisite experience was to watch as the computer operated sails were raised with coordinating music.   Istanbul slowly faded.  We saw other ships and boats but none compared to ours.  I knew this cruise would be special

We arrive at Bodrum, the only maiden port for us on the voyage so off we go to explore.  I had done my research on Bodrum so my head was filled with Halicarnassus, Herodotus and events that occurred in years that were followed by BC, and The Mausoleum.   

I like to think that Bodrum is famous because of ostentatious love.   When the Satrap, or ruler, Mausolus died in 353 BC, his wife had an enormous white marble monumental tomb built.   The top was a stepped pyramid and was such a wondrous accomplishment that the Greek historian Pliny designated the Mausoleum as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.   It was designed by the great Ionian architect Pytheos.  Not only was it the largest tomb ever built by the ancient Greeks it was also well built as it stood for 19 centuries until an earthquake destroyed it around the 14th century.  Only the massive foundation remains though some artifacts can be viewed inside the Castle of St. Peter.

With my head filled with all this antiquity and the romance of a bygone era, I was so surprised to see the modern, clean city nestled on the sunny bay and surrounded by spectacular scenery at every turn.   The only discordant note was the proliferation of vacation villages and timeshares cluttering up the shores.  It reminded us of the Costa del Sol.  I thought of it as the Marbella of Turkey.  Despite this, it still had the ambience of being a step back in time.  It would not have surprised me to see Anthony and Cleopatra holding hands and strolling through the Theatre of Ancient Halicarnassus.

Yet the best was yet to come.  On arriving back on our yacht we were informed that a dancer, an expert in both the history and art of belly dancing was on board to entertain.  We debated going but curiosity won out.   There was an introduction and history of the art by an emcee who informed us that the dancer would perform four stories in dance.

Oh, what a treat.  This gorgeous Turkish woman came out, gave an elegant bow and the music started.  Within a moment we knew we were experiencing something special.  This was pure artistry.  She was grace incarnate.  She moved in fluid, sinuous, sensual patterns, undulating from her toes to the ends of her hair.  The tiny musical coins sewn into the costume added to the mystique.  The movement of her eyes, the flutter of her lashes and the placement of hands and fingers and the ripple of her undulating torso and hips were all integral to the telling of the tales.   We were in awe. 

I looked over at the resident dolt, yes, there was one.  He had a beer bottle almost at his mouth but he did not take one sip, so enthralled he was.  That was the greatest compliment.  She danced as if she was engaged in intense communion in a separate interior place.   Yet we were totally engaged.  Her dancing was a most eloquent language. Mesmerizing.

You know an outstanding performance by what happens when it is over.  Here, there was a long moment of complete silence, a collective letting out of breath, and sighs of wonder broken by: “Oh, what a performance.”   We rose as one and the sound became a cacophony as we each tried to find the words to articulate our admiration and appreciation of what we had just witnessed.

Nearly every guest had seen belly dancing performances prior to this one but we all agreed that they fell far short.  My Bert kept asking: “How did she do that”?”  He was not the only one.

The Meander:   We try to find pleasure in everyday small miracles.  This was a miracle, not so everyday and not so small.   My memory is packed with travel miracles.

Progressing to Regression

The doorway going into the main bathroom was the measuring post.   Every now and then we would catch a child as he rushed hither and thither and announce cheerfully:

“Let’s see how much you have grown.”  Then out would come the measuring tape and a new pencil mark would be placed on the door jamb.

“Hey, you have grown another inch.”

As our boys grew there were other measuring tools.  Next grade in school, clothes and shoes that were outgrown far  too quickly.

There are no boys in the home any longer but I am still measuring.  It is a different kind.  Now I measure the regression.  I notice a similarity.  The boys had growth spurts; the regression also has spurts.   For a month or three I am relishing the pause of a good plateau and a manageable routine, and then:

“Paula, I got three.”   My Bert is lying in bed.  The sentence catches my attention as the tone has a certain timbre that tells me this is not a welcome ‘three’.

“Three what?” I ask.

“Three!!”  There is a note of impatience.

My Bert puts his thumb and first finger together to form a circle and says, even more impatiently:

“Three.  Three of these.”   I look at him and calmly say:

“Three round holes?  What do you want to do with them?”

“I don’t know.”  Now he sounds agitated.  I remain calm on the surface.   This is totally out of context and beyond the norm.  This is entering Alzheimer’s World. 

“They are just holes.  Don’t worry about them.  Just ignore them and go to sleep.”

“I can go to sleep?  Do you have them?”  He shows me the round holes and I make as if to take them away as I open his fingers.

“Yes.  I have them.” I say with a smile.

“OK, good.  Goodnight, Sweet Pea.  I love you!”

“’Night, ‘night.  I love you too.”

That is not all.  I now regularly sleep with a variety of people that only my Bert sees.  They are real to him.

“Paula.  They are there.”

“Who.”

“You know, them.  The ones, who um, but they go to sleep.  They sleep with us.”  He chuckles: “They are going with us.  They are…see… and we need cheese.”

I grasp onto that: “Tomorrow I am going to the Dutch shop and I will get cheese for your breakfast.”

“What cheese?  I want to sleep.  Take care of …mumble.”

“OK.  I will.”

We are preparing breakfast.  My Bert is painstakingly building his usual cheese sandwich.  He puts the cheese away and looks at the sandwich.  He is not satisfied and I notice a spot where the bread is not covered.   I know that will not do.

“I see an empty spot”, I say.

“Oh yes.  Give me the shoes.”

Without the least hesitation I pass him the cheese.  He takes it, covers the naked spot.  He looks at the sandwich and smile.   Should I have corrected him?  Why?  I am in Alzheimer’s world and I speak and understand Alzheimer.

In less than 12 hours I have witnessed a bit of anxiety, aphasia, confusion and hallucination.  I think we have just fallen off the plateau.  There will be another and I will have to adjust.  I know there will be more work, more care, patience and love needed. 

I have received notice of the new plateau.  Now after eating I surreptitiously stack the dishwasher.  Yes, my Bert wants to ‘help’ me by doing the few dishes but he has forgotten how to get hot water.  The kitchen tap is a single faucet.  You turn the lever to the left for cold and right for hot.  My Bert, until two weeks ago had no difficulty.  Now he calls to tell me there is no hot water.  I notice he is pulling the entire faucet forward and my Bert is strong.  I can imagine the plumbing bill should he wreck it.  So as soon as we eat I collect the dishes and put them directly into the dishwasher.  I tell my Bert we are letting the dishwasher do its job so we can have time to play,  listen to music or dance.   Usually he opts for music and promptly falls asleep in his chair.  Many times he will just decide to go to bed.  That works for me too.

The Meander:   “The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

Thank you, Lewis Carroll for nonsense verses like The Walrus and the Carpenter.  I smile and think Alzheimer’s World is in truth Through the Looking Glass.  Perhaps my Bert is the Walrus and I the Carpenter.  Maybe the next plateau will be pigs with wings.

The Gem at the Toe of the Boot

Sicilians are proud of their culture, customs, cuisine and laid back ambience.  Whenever we have visited that part of Italy, sooner or later we will hear the oft repeated phrase or some variance of it: ‘Sicily is the gem at the toe of the boot’.  You will also hear the Mafia spoken of with some ambivalence.  It is either blight or an integral part of the culture and a benevolent organization that looks after its own.  What I know for sure is that the food is good no matter where you find yourself in Sicily.

We were only two days from Rome.  The last days of a long Grand Mediterranean cruise.  The Captain had announced that we would be cruising through the Strait of Messina.  With packing, last minute exchanges of contact information, selecting gifts for our wonderful cabin steward it was akin to him telling us he was going to brush his teeth.   I did not pay too much attention.  I had too much to do, plus the grand final Trivia contest was coming up and though I was the weakest link I hoped my team would take home the first prize.  We did not, to our chagrin.  Our cruise pals came to say they had scoped out a great place on the upper deck for us to sit and watch the scenery as we traversed the Strait.   Since they were also busily packing we decided that we would go to the special cruise talk about The Strait of Messina.  We would therefore get the information and be able to skip the lazy time on deck watching the shore and instead do the packing.

My disinterest went straight out the window when the presenter started with: “Have you ever used the phrase ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’ or ‘out of the frying pan and  into the fire’ or, ‘between a rock and a hard place?”  We all laughed as we answered in the affirmative.   She explained that we would be cruising through the Strait of Messina, the birthplace for all those expressions originating from the Greek myth of Scylla and Charybdis. 

Scylla and Charybdis were two monsters who lived on opposite sides of a very narrow stretch of water.  They were the bane of Odysseus and his crew.  If in trying to avoid one monster they happened to sail too close to the other they really would be caught between a rock and a hard place.   Bumping up against either side would culminate in the same dire result, a watery grave.  I would hazard a guess that you would be hooked too with such an introduction.  The narrow stretch of water across which these two monsters lived is purportedly the Strait of Messina.

Packing could wait. We could not wait to get to our vantage point to sit and look for monsters and their homes as we cruised through the Strait.   We did not think about its reputation for very rough and dangerous tides forming whirlpools that could sink large boats.  No doubt this natural phenomenon was the explanation for the ‘monsters’ that plagued Odysseus. Neither did we enter the debate about the long proposed suspension bridge that would connect mainland Italy to Sicily over the Strait that was the hot topic of conversation at the time.  We were filled with the romance of the imagery of the Greek myth as we cruised through the land of mythology.

The journey is beautiful.  There is the blue of the Mediterranean, the green of the hills, the many picturesque villages dotting the coastline.  We watched a bus, a train and transport truck travelling across the water.  They looked like dinky toys but we could follow their journey.  There were many tunnels and we would scan the horizon waiting see where they would emerge.  Scudding patches of clouds would add another dimension and shade to the mountains as we sailed by.  The combination of nature, calm sea, new friends, and the aura of the myth made for a fantastic experience. From our vantage point all seemed peaceful and tranquil.

We made up stories about the people who may live in those villages, separated by mountains, seemingly isolated one from the other.   We were watching the mainland side and I wondered about the logistics of dating across the Strait.  “I am sorry dad, I missed the last ferry.  Can you come and pick me up?”  No wonder that for years that bridge has been a dream for so many.  If it ever comes to fruition, it will be the longest suspension bridge in the world.  Or as some refer to it, ‘a bridge too far’ when despairing that it will ever be built.

There was a moment of regret as we exited the Strait heading north to Rome.  We would be flying home from Rome via Frankfurt.  We were happy to be going home but after the serene, lazy sail through the Strait taking in the bucolic scenery, Rome and Frankfurt seemed discordant, a disruption of the peace, a too swift wake up call back to reality.

The Meander:  Cruising through the Strait of Messina was an unexpected pleasure.  There is one such treasure on every trip, cruise, and journey.  As in life you just have to say ‘yes’ when they come along.

A Sombre Tour

I did not sleep well the night before we landed in Dakar, Senegal.  I knew the reason.   We were going on tour to Ile de Goree.  So many of my friends had visited and told of the emotional toll it took as they walked through the House of Slaves. 

The House of Slaves on Ile de Goree is a Museum and UNESCO World Heritage site that commemorates the darkest period of man’s inhumanity to man – The Atlantic Slave Trade.

Goree was the holding port for slaves.   Of the approximately 45 million human beings who were torn from their homeland to be sold in the New World, nearly 20 million left from this place to face the treacherous Middle Passage crossing.   First begun by the Portuguese, this trade in human ‘cargo’ went on for three centuries from 1536 to 1848.

At the entrance to the Museum stands a statue depicting a female and a male slave.  They are bare breasted.  The woman holds onto the man her face uplifted.  The man’s hands are lifted high holding two parts of a broken chain.  He too looks upward.  There was an involuntary hush as we walked from the statue and through the doors of the Museum. The slave house had rooms measuring eight feet by six feet in which up to twenty persons, shackled by their necks and arms were held.  They were allowed one daily bathroom break.  Families captured together would most likely be separated here as they would be once they arrived in the New World.   If you came to this holding pen you had already lost everything including your name.   After all cargo was a numbered commodity not a person.   You got a number and your next official identity would come from the person who would buy you and therefore owned you.

Dare to show resistance, to rebel and you would be relegated to two small cells, so small you were unable to stand up.  You would be shackled, seated, with your back against the walls.  A hopelessness seemed to emanate from these two cells. Doom, bleakness, darkness, defeat, despair hovered in the air. My stomach knotted. I gasped audibly interrupting the guide.

“Sorry,”   I said.

“It is OK.  Many people cry in this place.  In fact Nelson Mandela was almost in the same place you are when he wept.”

We continued the tour and came to the Door of no Return or ‘last look’ door.  I took a picture, the same place President Obama had had his picture taken.   I cried.  I could not help it.  I imagined the heartbreak as each one realized that once they passed through this door to descend to the waiting slave ship it would be the last look they had of their homeland.   Now they were losing the last vestiges of belonging, of home.

They had lost their personhood when they were traded for guns, trinkets, food.  There was a formula to assess the value of this human ‘cargo’.  Children as tall as a man’s leg, females tall enough to reach a man’s chest no matter their ages were desirable, even more so if they were virgins.  Men were assessed according to their weight.  If a man weighed less than 60 kilos they would be taken but kept in a special holding room at Goree and ‘fattened up’ with beans to ensure a better price when sold.

The strongest, fittest, tallest men were the most valuable.    They may be worth a gun or two or more.  No problem, as these were going to bring a high profit when re-sold in the New World.  Also, they were the ones most likely to withstand the rigours of the Middle Passage crossing.

I struggled for breath as I listened to the atrocities, to the barbarism.  I was ashamed at the description of the ‘cargo’, the ‘goods’, the ‘numbers’.  They were human beings, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, princes, princesses, chieftains, innocent children.  There was no nuance or balance to my emotion.   What I felt was raw, rough, deep anger.   This was beyond cruelty.  And this abominable trade lasted for over 300 years!

I had studied this bit of history; I had watched the movies and documentaries, seen the depictions in books and listened to erudite speakers.   No cinematographer, no author, no speaker or history scholar could capture the emotion of seeing this up close.   Walking through the Stygian gloom of The Slave House shook me to the core.   This was evil, pure and not so simple.

The tour did not end there though the rest seemed immaterial until we visited St Charles Church, built by the Portuguese in 1658 and the place where you got the best view of the House of Slaves and Ile de Goree.  I could just envision the pious and devout congregants leaving mass and looking at the island, maybe see a ship loading the ‘cargo’ and mentally counting the profits the ‘cargo’ would bring.

The Meander:   I wept when I first visited The Berlin Wall and wept with joy as we were at the re-opening of the Brandenburg Gate by President Bill Clinton.  I wept at Auschwitz and said a prayer for my late brother-in-law, Theo, who was held in Dachau. I weep for sadness and weep for joy but my tears at Ile de Goree were the deepest most hurting tears I ever shed.  I was weeping not only for the 45 million but also for the current 20 or 30 or 50 million living in slavery.   For these the chains remain unbroken.

Oh, by the way, we are Celebrating Black History Month!