VIOLA - We grew up hearing the slogan ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste.’ But what if your mind begins to waste on its own accord?
My big sister, Jill, was the smart one in our family. Labeling children isn't healthy, but there it is: Jill was the smart one. She was also pretty, and had blue eyes and long, thick, wavy blond hair.
Jill has always joked about being my older sister. And for years I’ve signed my cards to her “Love, your younger sister, Jane.”
Jill’s hair turned silver years ago. It’s still thick and wavy.
But this story isn’t about her hair color or her clear blue eyes.
Jill stopped driving at the age of 62. She voluntarily gave up her right to drive after getting lost and frightened too many times. This was the same year Jill was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Jill lives alone not far from the home where we grew up. She has a friend who stays with her, when he can, to help her out. She’s incredibly smart but her mind trips her up, more now than when she was diagnosed four years ago. These mistakes terrify me, even though I understand how Alzheimer’s slowly crushes one’s mind and, ultimately, one’s life.
When I call Jill today her voice lifts; there is joy. But then I have to strain to hear her speak.
She shares with me her fear about falling. She falls because her depth perception is out of whack. She counts steps to try to prevent herself from falling. She says she doesn’t get lost, but our brother Jack told me that Jill got lost last week coming out of the bathroom in my mom’s tiny apartment.
When I ask Jill what I can do for her, she says, “Tell me about your day; what have you been doing?” I struggle to come up with anything worthwhile to mention and end up telling her a funny story about Louisa, my pig. She laughs and I say, “What do you want to do next weekend when I come to see you?”
“Anything with you, anything,” she answers softly.
“Okay, I’ll pick you up and we can be like Thelma and Louise. We’ll drive all over town and do whatever we want to do!”
“What did we used to do?”
“Remember the Fourth of July that Jack came pulling up to Mom and Dad’s house with those three-wheelers in the back of his pickup?” Jill laughs and I swear I can see her head nodding.
“Jack took those bikes off the back, a big one and a smaller one, and told us not to touch them. He went to town for gas or something. I looked at you and hopped on the big one, smiled, and said, ‘Dirt sisters, start your engines!’”
I hear Jill chuckling. “Dirt, sisters, start,” she repeats after me.
“You got on the little bike and away we raced down the driveway and straight across the street to Hales Corners Park,” I continue. “I ended up going down the hill too fast, couldn’t turn, and tipped right over into the creek. I had to wait for you to find me.”
“You were wearing an all-white outfit for Fourth of July,” Jill says. “I saw you lying under that bike and said, ‘You're going to get it!’ And left you there to go get Jack.” Her clarity startles me. She has it down pat. This is a story we have often retold.
We both laugh at how ridiculous it was for her to leave me there, how furious Jack was with me, and how lucky I was I didn’t get crushed.
Then, we are quiet–too quiet.
I tell my sister that I’ll see her Saturday morning. I also tell her that if the weather forecast suggests the drive to Milwaukee will be unmanageable, I’ll call her right away. She asks me to relay this information to her friend and calls out for him, twice. “Oh, I’m alone. He’s not here.”
My heart plummets with the pain and fear I can hear in her faint, almost childish voice. “Maybe he is outside shoveling the walk,” I say.
Later, her friend calls me to confirm my phone call with Jill and that I’ll be there next Saturday.
My niece messaged me that they set up an appointment to have Jill assessed for moving into a memory care home in February. My sister is not only falling, but slipping away. Her friend is not able to be with her around the clock.
Jill’s silver hair is still thick and wavy. She’s still the smart one. She would never willingly let her mind waste. If she could outsmart this disease, she would. But no one can. It’s merciless.
Before I hang up the phone I say, “I'll see you Saturday.” And in my mind I add, I'll be your big sister now.