How Alzheimer's damages a mind, but not a memory
By Dylan Howlett
My grandfather, Phil Howlett, visits his wife of 65 years, Ann Flowers Howlett, five days a week, two hours each day, at the Regency Park Oak Knoll memory care facility in Pasadena, Calif. To him she is his beloved Ann, the unsurpassed homemaker and mother of their five kids. To me she is Gum, for when I was young and my speech was a garbled mess, I couldn’t pronounce Grandma. “Gum” was all I could muster. It stuck.
I hadn’t seen Gum in 20 months when I arrived in Pasadena a few weeks ago. She hadn’t recognized me during my previous visit, nor would she during this one. Her Alzheimer’s began at least 10 years ago, my family estimates, and now her 85-year-old body is but a hollow vessel of a foundering mind.
“Isn’t it nice,” says Poppy, as I know my grandfather, to Gum on the first day of my visit, “that our grandson Dylan has joined us from North Carolina?” He would repeat the line every day. There would be no response.
Gum sits on a tattered turquoise seat cushion, which lent her added support beyond the beige patio chairs on which we lounged in Oak Knoll’s courtyard. Her gaze remains fixed on a point that none of us can see, an ether that only she knows. Then she turns her face toward mine, gives me a speculative lookover, and laughs.
A flicker of familiarity, and all the more reason to hold tight.
There is a love story amid this heartbreak. It is something that Alzheimer’s will never snuff out. Phil Howlett and Ann Flowers, two years his junior, met at Northwestern University in January 1949. They had attended high school in neighboring suburbs of Chicago. He was quiet, contemplative — friends warned Ann that Phil might bring a book to dinner. She was gregarious, infectious. But both were kind, and both saw the world with the same eyes, and the magnetism was strong. “Gadzooks!” she said after their first date when Phil planted one. “A kiss on the first date!” They were married that fall. Appropriately so, a mutual friend said, because they were the two most bowlegged people at Northwestern.
It seems criminal, almost anathema to humanity, to dedicate so many words to demise and comparatively so few to life. Because Gum lived more than most. She raised five kids and stewarded four family homes on two continents. Phil’s various executive positions with Time Inc. led the family from Wilmette, Ill., to Montclair, N.J., then to Weybridge, Surrey in England and to Greenwich, Conn., where they lived in a quaint outpost among gaudy monstrosities for 37 years.
In each of these homes, Gum did it all: found them on the market for a reasonable price, painted, wallpapered, upholstered. A local Connecticut publication once featured her collection of miniature Santas that lined the staircase and hutches and dressers during Christmastime at Greenwich’s 21 Flagler Drive. She indoctrinated herself in the culinary art of the French, and every day was a food aficionado’s delight, from frittatas to gazpacho, turkey tetrazzini to cheesy potatoes. Ketchup was always served in a silver dish with a spoon. Detail was never neglected, effort never shortchanged. Her homes were bastions of comfort and warmth.
Much like her heart. For decades she cooked meals for local homes in Connecticut that served HIV patients and the homeless. The number of charities to which she donated reached 100 by the time she could no longer decipher numerals. She doted on her three grandchildren with morsels (“Texas Squares,” decadent chocolate cake cut into small cubes with an even more decadent chocolate icing) and board games (Yahtzee!, which she delighted in teaching and beating me) and laughter (a chipmunk-like chuckle that could dissolve the most stoic among us). She held a Christmas coffee every December for her best girlfriends, who delighted in sampling all of the 20-something cookies and pastries Gum prepared every year. One yearly dispensation was made, though, for a sugar-addicted grandson, who bumped into the thighs of hoity-toity women as he pawed at every corner of the cornucopia with his grubby hands. I would stay afterward to talk shop with my mom and Gum, who often served me “Russian tea” while we laughed about that year’s fare. The tea was just Lipton and Tang, but it might as well have been an exotic import. Gum had a gift for making everyone feel royal.
She saved her softest touch for my older brother, Luke, who is unable to speak and has significant special needs. She dubbed him “Lukey Lamb,” and along with Poppy bought him a puppy when he was 10. This was a bond that would never wane, not even when she was six years deep into Alzheimer’s in 2011 and Luke had to leave our table at a Greenwich restaurant because a noisy child had upset him. Gum wept. “I just feel so sorry for him,” she said. The disease wouldn’t dare blunt her affection for Lukey Lamb.
Nor could it sever completely the bowlegged couple. But it taunted them, so indiscriminate, it is, to six decades worth of unwavering loyalty. There was a day when Gum thought Poppy was an intruder in their home and asked him to leave, a day when a few of us left to play golf and returned to the acrid smell of the forgotten kettle left too long on a metallic burner, so many days when a sharp mind seemed dulled beyond repair. For so long Gum had cared for him, and now it was Poppy’s turn to do the same for her. But a man in his eighties, no matter how great his love for his wife, can scare away the beast for only so long.
They had spent 26 years together in Poppy’s retirement, traveling to Egypt and Turkey and New Zealand, and now they would jet off together once more to Southern California. It would not be a couple’s getaway to Santa Barbara, as they had done every March for almost 20 years. They would room together in an assisted-living facility for a few months in Pasadena before the beast clawed Poppy’s back down to the bone. Gum went to Oak Knoll, Poppy went to a small apartment on Orange Grove Boulevard, and for the first time in more than 60 years Ann Flowers and Phil Howlett didn’t share a roof above their heads.
But today the sun is bright. It’s a Friday at Oak Knoll, and its residents meander about — some in a vegetative glaze, others in a disoriented haze. At times it seems like a refuge from a ghastly affliction, but mostly a morgue for the living. Some walk the same circuitous pattern over and over again. Some babble to themselves about nothing in particular. Many sit in chairs and stare into a void, looking right through life and out the other side.
Gum hasn’t grown irritable as some people with Alzheimer’s do. Poppy is the only remaining family member she calls by name. She still lets him put cookies in her mouth and lets him report daily on the latest developments in their family. She lets him find her asleep, every day, on one of the chairs facing a flat-screen TV in Oak Knoll’s living room, lets him help her out of her seat, lets him hold her hands as he guides her, feet shuffling at a tortoise’s pace, to their seats in the courtyard. Gum often boasted, tongue-in-cheek, about her days as a hurdler at her elementary school. Now it takes her 25 seconds and a good dose of pause before she can clear the quarter-inch threshold between the living room and courtyard.
But the drain on vitality gets plugged when Poppy sits beside Gum and holds her left hand in his right, tracing his thumb across her skin, both of their legs bowed outward, their eyes suggesting something that will never be taken: a beautiful afternoon between soul mates.
It’s all there. It has to be. The face. The mannerisms. The voice. Yet nothing is there, only a shadow, a tease of yesterday. It appears, every once in a while, that Gum will come barreling through the fog, that she’ll smash this insidious beast to bits and become whole again. But she never does. She can’t. And that, perhaps, is the hardest part.
A few weeks before I arrived, my uncle Philip, who runs a design company with his husband, Jeff, in Pasadena, paid a visit to Gum and reminisced about her impersonation of Bob Ross, the late host of public television’s “The Joy of Painting.” Ross spoke a curious lexicon, which tickled Gum, a wordsmith and fierce grammarian. The painter had a habit of emphasizing minute touch-ups as he painted his landscapes. Gum adored it. “Like ‘dis and like ‘dat,” Philip said to her at Oak Knoll.
“‘Dat’?” she said, appalled. “THAT.” The hard “th” was enough to cut through the haze. Just for a moment.
So it went for the duration of my stay. Some days she was talkative, but there was little substance. Only in painstaking intervals would something lucid pop out. Most of the words sounded fabricated, much like an infant trying to piece together language for the first time. We surmise it’s a narrative of observation, jumbled critiques and amusing anecdotes about fellow Oak Knoll residents. This often makes her laugh, and she’ll ramble on about something only she finds funny. But the laughter is enough to make us smile. This is when holding tight brings the greatest reward.
Gum can fall into the trap of most Alzheimer’s patients and slip into the ether, often when we don’t engage her enough in conversation. But mirrors pump life back into her. On that same Friday, Poppy, Gum and I stand in front of a large hall mirror, and Gum fixes her sights on me, groping for some trace of my relevance in the frayed pieces of her mind. It’s like pushing a safe through sand. But she laughs a handful of other times when she looks at me, as if I’m familiar enough to chuckle at my face. There’s more visual probing the next day, trying to figure out where I fit in. And then, just when the inquiry feels like it will reach a verdict, the ether swallows it all.
But not for good. Gum comes roaring back a few minutes later with an unsolicited groundhog face, one of her favorite shticks. “Don’t you think our grandson is handsome?” Poppy asks later. Gum looks at me. “Not bad,” she says.
“Good days and bad days” is the tired refrain of Alzheimer’s, but there are times when the good and bad are almost inseparable. For every stumble there is longing for yesterday, and for every glimpse there is even more longing. On my final Tuesday, I lean in for a departing kiss after we return Gum to a chair in the living room. “See you more,” she says, and laughs. All I want to do is pull out the Yahtzee! dice and roll some full houses.
My final day follows the script. Gum isn’t too animated until we get her walking and in front of a mirror, and she bursts through, talking as much as she has during my stay. Poppy and I guide her to one of her favorite chairs in the living room, a small throwback with a floral pattern that perfectly cradles her diminutive frame.
Poppy had reminded Gum every day we visited that I will graduate in May. I know this might be the last time I’ll ever see her. For all of its glacial siphoning, Alzheimer’s can turn off the lights just as fast. Ten years with the disease at 85 years old is haunting arithmetic. Post-graduate employment might not allow for another extended vacation. This could be my farewell to Gum.
It is cruel, unusually so, to say goodbye to someone who wants to say hello but can’t. There would be no Texas Squares to share, no heartwarming update of Luke’s progress, no mention of my journalism major that would have made the grammarian proud. All that’s left is the now. It’s too overwhelming to stomach if you yearn for all that is no longer there. But what’s here, now, is a grandson crouching before his grandma, and the haze isn’t as thick at this moment, and what is lost is far less important than everything that remains.
I say goodbye and lean in for a kiss. She breathes on my cheek, but no kiss.
Then she starts talking about something unintelligible, the glint in her eye returning for just a moment, her mouth and facial muscles motoring along with the same idiosyncratic glee as they had for years.
I lean in again for a kiss. She obliges.
“I love you,” I say. “I hope to see you soon.”
“You do that,” Gum says, with a pronounced “th.”
I walk away and turn back to steal a final glance. She appears to stare at the spot where I had just knelt before her, as if I were still there.
It is clear, then. It’s so clear, not even a wicked cognitive disorder could muddle it up. I didn’t hold Gum.
We held each other.