By Bill Lyon
“Do you need help?”
The woman was solicitous, her concern genuine.
“Do you need help?”
I looked around.
“Do you need help?”
Now I realized she was talking to me.
“Are you OK?”
Just waiting for my wife, I said. She nodded and then retreated to the checkout line.
Later, same scenario. This time a young girl with an ID badge approaches, hesitantly.
“They want me to see if you’re OK. … Are you?”
And then it dawns on me. Here I stood. A senior citizen leaning on a cane, turning in tiny shuffling circles, hunched over, peering at nothing, waiting, waiting, waiting …
And now comes that familiar gleeful cackle. Al! My Alzheimer’s nemesis: “Look familiar, Buddy Boy?”
He’s right. That’s me.
The very walking caricature of the Little Old Man.
Same one I had snickered about in my callow, wise-ass youth. Can’t happen to me. Right. … Just like those wrinkles and furrows that have dug all those lines in your face … and, hey, whose face is that one that looks back at you from the mirror?
So it’s a jolt when, quite abruptly, you come face to face with reality.
Befuddlement was my first reaction. I felt disoriented. And then I felt a sudden rush of anger. And then embarrassment … and then resentment. Were they making fun of the Little Old Man? Shame on them.
Gradually, then, the anger subsided, replaced by understanding and then acceptance of my situation, and then, finally, gratitude.
They were genuinely well-meaning. But vanity can blind you sometimes.
For some reason the image crossed my mind of that Boy Scout in the cartoon trying to help the Little Old Lady cross the street and she’s beating him with her purse … “wrong way, wrong way. … A reminder that things are not always what they appear to be.
Now I will smile whenever someone approaches to inquire of me, “Do you need help?” And I will thank them, and mean it.
Besides, who knows. … One day I may need it.
I see by the clock on the wall that it’s time for our periodic visit to the man in the white lab coat who will try to figure out why I do what I do.
For starters, there is the matter of sitting. I need guidance, someone to line up chair and you, and then you squat, ever so slowly, and you place yourself in the hands of someone you trust beyond all reason. … It’s only a drop of a foot or two, but it feels like Evel Knievel and the Snake River Canyon Jump.
What goes down has to come back up, and the key here is propulsion. Find a chair with bounce and begin to rock back and forth, build a high speed, and then slingshot yourself.
They are called Tremors. Little earthquakes. They set your fingers to drum-drum-drumming. It’s the percussion section, with Al leading. The shaking can become so violent that I have to use both hands to drink. And soup? Not possible. Remember what we said at the start of our journey: Adapt … adjust … never give in.
Depth perception. This one is especially nettlesome. It’s like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Everything is distorted. Your aim is off just enough to invite spills. You reach for things that are not there. … Hello, pills … paging those missing meds. … Oh, there they are … or maybe not. … Did I take the green one yet?
On a good day I can dress myself. On a not-so-good day I will take 36 minutes and still be incomplete, and on one of those bad days when the pile of wadded-up and inside-out failures lies at my feet, mocking me, I resort to a tried-and-true bellowing tactic: ““Ethel-l-ll-llll … “ (the wife).
And on that subject, the subject of caregivers, permit a slight digression: They are proof that angels roam the earth, for at both ends in the great Circle of Life, who else is willing to change diapers without complaint?
Alzheimer’s is a disease. It is nothing to be ashamed of. You didn’t ask for it.
Al and his henchmen weren’t identified and given a name until fairly recently. Unable to find a satisfactory explanation, they settled for something vague: Natural causes. Or hardening of the arteries.
What we don’t know we fear and we lock up and throw away the keys. So for many of my generation there has been a stigma attached to whatever that is in the basement … and never dare speak.
It’s time to shine a light on Al. So now we mobilize, starting with public awareness. There are more than 5 million of us out there, and the toll is rising, just as our population rate rises. Remember that Alzheimer’s is called the Family Disease because in virtually any household there are apt to be patients and those who care for them.
A good place to start is Congress. Pepper its members with petitions, lobby them for money, enact laws to support the fight. … Make a pest of yourself. Al does.
So I have logged some more miles since my last checkup and through the mist of time the number 80 beckons.
All the while, down in the laboratory, the researchers continue their pursuit of a cure …
… and I wish them Godspeed.
Bill Lyon is a retired Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist and author of “Deadlines and Overtimes: Collected Writings on Sports and Life.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.