July 5, 2021

Mercedes Schneider: July 4th and Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

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Sometimes the relationships forged in a classroom live far beyond time and trouble. 

On this July 4th, I went to a hospice facility to visit my favorite teacher from my undergraduate at LSU.

She has early-onset Alzheimer’s. Tomorrow is her 70th birthday.

I first wrote about her a couple of years ago on this blog. I knew something was wrong, but I did not realize she had Alheimers until 2018 when I went to visit her and she forgot to tell me that she had moved.

I was in her Intro to Fiction class in my sophomore year (1986-87). It was the only course for which she was my instructor, but for my remaining time at LSU, I would occasionally stop by her office and chat with her. My home life was a mess and my living situation uncertain during holidays and breaks. I never told her so, but stopping by just to chat was a stabilizing experience for me.

Once I left LSU, many years passed with my seeing her only a handful of times for lunch here and there, and once for an overnight visit to her home. During my time living away from Louisiana (Georgia, Colorado, Indiana; 1993-2007), I was not in touch.

When I published my first book in 2014, I sent her a note to let her know. She wrote back, which I now realize may have been a feat since the Alzheimers might have already been beginning to manifest itself.

By late 2016, following the 100-year flood in Baton Rouge, I called her to see how she was. I was actually in her driveway, and her home was boarded up. She said she was in town staying with her husband’s family, but she could not give me directions to where she was. That should have been a clue.

I later learned from her husband that they had been evacuated by boat from the second story of their house at 10:30 p.m., awakened by a police bullhorn because the lower level of their home had already taken on water while they were sleeping.

I did not see her until she was back in her newly-restored home, in mid-2017. She was reluctant to leave her home, and I noticed that she exhibited short-term memory issues. But she was happy to see me, and she knew who I was.

Over the next few years, I saw her about once per year, and the memory issues were becoming more pronounced.

Her husband was happy for my visits. In July 2020, when I last came to visit my instructor on her birthday, her husband confided that at night, she cried, asking him to divorce her because she knew she was declining.

In May 2021, I received a voicemail during school hours. When I saw it was from my instructor’s husband, my heart froze. I thought he was calling to tell me my instructor had died.

Instead, he was calling her friends to update us on her situation. She had stopped bathing and refused to change her clothes. She had also taken to wandering off. He placed her in an inpatient facility, but she became aggressive, pulling hair and hitting those trying to help her. She finally ended up in a rehab center so that doctors could establish a drug regimen to help control the aggressiveness in order to make transfer to an inpatient care facility possible.

In June 2021, he called again, this time to say that her aggression had been managed enough for her to be placed in a hospice facility (a house suitable for about a dozen patients), and that she could have visitors.

I went to see her the next day. I reminded her of who I was and told her several times during our 20-minute visit that I love her. Upon my leaving, she motioned for me to come closer to her (she is in a chair that prevents her from wandering off), and I did so, knowing that the aggression of hair-pulling and hitting could have been the result, but it was not. Instead, she hugged me with both arms and kissed my cheek.

Today, she did not know who I was, and she was surprised to hear that I had been her student at LSU.

I told her that today was July 4th, and I asked her if she knew wht July 5th was.

I told her that July 5th was her birthday– her 70th birthday– that she was born in 1951, and since it is 2021, that makes her 70 years old tomorrow.

She listened to me as one might listen when the solution to a mystery is finally revealed and the hearer is grateful for the news.

“Thank you for telling me that.” Spoken so frankly.

At the end of our visit, I said, “I’m going to leave now,” and asked, “Can I hug you?”

She responded, “Of course.”

After we hugged, as I was turning to go, she quietly asked, “Can I come with you?”

My heart was in my throat.

How I wish you could, my dear, dear teacher.

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