The interview happens on a wooden deck in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The home is nestled in the woods so all we have are trees and the sound of birds. We are on River Street. Which is just off Riverfront Avenue which is, itself, off Riverview… as one of my fellow interviewers jokes to the couple before us:
“I guess there’s a river around here, somewhere?”
“Yes.” Says Linda. “I do know that is true.”
Linda has Alzheimer’s. Early onset. She was diagnosed at 48, now she is 54. I am there with two other interviewers. We make theater this way, interviewing as a group then running off to some empty space to re-live the highpoints of our conversations. Linda is married to Gary.
“Gary is an engineer,” she tells us. “Is that right?” SHe asks him.
“Yes, that’s right.” He assures her.
They met later in life: a cruise that had been organized by a woman in the neighborhood, one of those things where if you get enough people to sign up then it’s discounted and your ticket is free. Gary was a well known sailor. Linda had a big picture of a boat on her desk.
“But you didn’t even like boating. Or at least you never had been boating before. You just liked the picture,” Gary tells her.
“Is that true,” she asks. He nods. “Wow, I didn’t like boating.”
Her life is narrated to her. She smiles through it all. Her eyes light up and she speaks emphatically. You direct your questions to her but she defers. She continues smiling but turns to her husband and he’ll say:
“You worked at the University.”
“Your favorite students were the Foreign ones. You said different cultures were exciting.”
“That makes sense.”
“You knew something was wrong.”
“Your daughters don’t come and visit.”
“But they want to?”
“I’m sure deep down somewhere they do.”
Gary has cancer. His ankles are puffed out and huge. He nods and is gracious, tells you he originally dreamed of retiring at sea- he has a friend who sales his houseboat from Florida to Australia, “could have been me”- but life doesn’t always let you make those plans.
Linda keeps a refrain going. She smiles and waves her arms and says she just knows there are “all these bright doctors, all these bright men, can’t they help me? I just keep thinking come on and help me!” She says it full of positivity. It’s child like, innocent… The leaves behind her are green, the sky fresh, we are somewhere by a river and as she talks about getting lost- about a night at her daughters home where finding the bathroom became epic, about the GPS her husband keeps on her so that when she walks the dog he can call her and tell her how to get home, about how all she loved to do was read and now she can’t keep the stories in her head, that with each paragraph she forgets what came before…
We say our goodbyes and head for the door and she interjects-
“Before you leave-”
The trees are swaying behind her.
“I want to say one thing.”
We sit back down.
“The other night I was in bed with my husband and this man is great.”
She touches his knee.
“And I asked- ‘is Alzheimer’s going to kill me?’ And he said yes.”
Gary puts his hand on hers. Covers it.
“And I asked him how?”
One of the interviewers with me is my own wife. I look at her.
“And he told me. But I can’t remember what he said.”
I imagine myself waking up in the middle of the night and asking her “is anything going to kill me?”
“And I’m going to ask him to tell me right now. Because I want to remember. How is it going to kill me?”
“As far as I know, I believe,” Gary says calmly, quietly, “your brain will eventually forget to do everyday things like breathing or swallowing-”
“So I’ll choke.”
Linda puts her hands to her throat.
“I don’t want to die like that.”
She leaves her hands at her throat. You can see on Gary’s face he has told her this more times than just in bed the other night. Her eyes are fear. They say goodbye and we leave. And as we drive away and down the hill-
There’s got to be a river somewhere near here. Not that we see it. Not that we even have the faintest idea how to find it.