“Somewhere there is that ever-present reminder list of what I am supposed to do today. But I cannot find it. I attempt to do the laundry and find myself outside, in my backyard, holding soiled clothes. How did I get here? How do I get back?”
Only forty-five when she first began to struggle with the memory lapses and disorientation that signal the onset of Alzheimer’s, Diana Friel McGowin has written a courageous, stirring insider’s story of the disease that is now the fourth leading killer of American adults.
Diana’s personal journey through days of darkness and light, fear and hope gives us new insight into a devastating illness and the plight of its victims, complete with a list of early warning signs, medical background, and resources for further information. But Diana’s story goes far beyond a recounting of a terrifying disease. It portrays a marriage struggling to survive, a family hurt beyond words, and a woman whose humor and intelligence triumph over setbacks and loss to show us the best of what being human is.
“A stunner of a book . . . it takes the reader on a terrifying but enlightening journey.”—San Antonio News Express
“Touching and sometimes angry . . . a poignant insider’s view.”—The Cincinnati Enquirer
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When I first received my diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, I closed myself up in one room of my darkened and tightly locked house, and refused to answer the telephone or door bell. Although I had tried for years to determine what was happening to me, I was not prepared for the truth I was so frantically seeking.
You see, I had gone searching for something “fixable.” Alzheimer’s disease is not fixable. At present, it is considered terminal.
This book is a chronicle of my battle with Alzheimer’s. It is a plain-language, “as it happened” chronicle which I pray will assist others like me who are dealing with this perplexing problem, and their families. It is a factual account of an average American family with nothing more than life’s typical problems, until it experienced the confusion, anxiety and heartbreak of an unknown affliction. It catalogues the innocent mistakes made and the successful positive steps taken by a family with no rule book to refer to in coping with an often difficult and tragic situation.
I hope that it offers comfort to patients and their families and demonstrates that dignity is imperative for the survival of the self. The Alzheimer’s patient asks nothing more than a hand to hold, a heart to care, and a mind to think for them when they cannot; someone to protect them as they travel through the dangerous twists and turns of the labyrinth.
These thoughts must be put on paper now. Tomorrow they may be gone, as fleeting as the bloom of night jasmine beside my front door.
Diana Friel McGowin
Orlando, Florida, 1992.
I hurried to put the finishing touches to the buffet table as the dining room clock chimed its warning cadence. My newly wed daughter, Lynn, and her husband, Lee, had arrived earlier for a visit, and I had invited the rest of my family for a small reunion and buffet luncheon.
Nervously, I checked off the table appointments on a list retrieved from my jumpsuit pocket. Such a list had never been necessary before, but lately I noticed frequent little episodes of confusion and memory lapses. It was probably tension, due to my hectic career. If it worsened, I would make an appointment for a checkup, to ensure that my previous difficulties with hypertension had not risen from the dead. I was proud of the fact that with dietary changes and exercise, my blood pressure problems had abated. A small stroke a couple of years ago, which my doctor had called a “transient ischemic attack,” or TIA, had served as a warning to make these modest lifestyle changes.
Everything was on the table to my satisfaction. I took my purse from the kitchen shelf and hastened out the door to my car. It was now time to pick up the food from the restaurant nearby. I had decided to “cheat” on this family buffet, and have the meal prepared on a carry-out basis. Cooking was also becoming increasingly difficult, due to what my children and my husband Jack teasingly referred to as my “absentmindedness.”
I returned home and carried in the food trays just as my son Bill, my brother, and their families arrived. Immediately thereafter my father arrived with my stepmother, and the pandemonium of chattering voices, the running feet of little children, and general family get-together noisiness began.
As darkness fell, we were all assembled on the patio deck. Large floodlights illuminated the backyard, and Polynesian torches were strategically placed around the deck. This practice delighted the children, as always.
Bill, together with Lynn and the youngest of the brood, Shaun, were still playfully recording the events of the day with a video camcorder. Lynn called out to me for another blank tape cassette, and I rushed inside to get one.
As I returned to the deck, I suddenly staggered, as the wooden deck appeared to heave and quake before me. I caught my balance by throwing myself against the exterior wall of the house.
“Okay, Sis! No more cola drinks for you!” my brother jested.
“What’s the matter, Mom? Did your heel catch in the planking of the deck?” Lynn asked.
I knew God had given me this child for some reason! Shaken, I smiled in agreement and handed Lynn the blank cassette. The rest of the evening went without a hitch, as my kith and kin enjoyed exchanging familiarities and jokes while finishing off the food trays.
After our visitors left and Lynn and her husband retired to the guest room, Jack and I began the cleanup. My family had ravenously eaten everything but the paper plates, bones, and a few pieces of garlic bread. I smiled to myself in satisfaction, certain that they had all had a great time.
As Jack and I were sinking gratefully into bed, he questioned me about the “dizzy spell” on the deck.
“It wasn’t a dizzy spell,” I sighed. “I just lost my footing for a minute.”
“I’ve noticed you having a lot of little ‘losses’ lately. When are you due for your next physical?”
I turned my back to him, not answering. That was the third time that day that I had momentarily lost my balance, although I did not feel faint or dizzy. It was as though someone was suddenly moving the earth beneath my feet, causing me to stagger or trip.
Jack advised me to telephone my doctor the next day and arrange for an examination, “just to be on the safe side.”
The next morning, Lynn and her husband packed their sedan immediately after breakfast. They wanted to be on the road early and avoid Florida’s heat as they returned to their Tennessee home.
I fought tears as the young couple drove from the driveway. I missed the days when all the children were at home. Shaun would also be leaving in a few years. Even now, his life was so full with schooling and a busy social scene that he was rarely home.
I chided myself for too-early symptoms of empty nest syndrome. It was that time of life. My battle with little memory losses and balance were probably all psychosomatic, just a woman realizing that she was getting older, and not necessarily better. After all, I was forty-five years of age. One would naturally expect some innocuous symptoms of the body slowing down.
I set about catching up on household chores, but the family get-together had fatigued me. Opening a soft drink, I sank into my favorite easy chair, grateful to have the rest of the week off work.
Shaun walked past me on his way to the kitchen, and paused.
“Mom, what’s up? You look ragged,” he commented sleepily.
“Late night last night, plenty of excitement, and then up early to get your father off to work,” I answered.
Shaun laughed disconcertingly.
I glanced up at him ruefully. “What is so funny?” I demanded.
“You, Mom! You are talking as though you are on a drunk or something! You must really be tired!”
The telephone rang, preventing a further retort from me. It was my husband, asking me to prepare a lunch and deliver it to him at his work-place. He would only have a thirty-minute lunch break; not enough time to get to a restaurant.
Quickly I put together a rudimentary lunch, and went to my car. I hesitated for a moment, confused on exactly how to place both my purse and the lunch container on the seat beside me. After some juggling, I backed the car from the driveway.
As I drove to Jack’s office, I noticed a strip shopping center, new to me. It was strange I had not noticed this mall previously. I traveled this route frequently.
I passed the street leading to the off-site, and drove several miles down the road before realizing my error. No doubt the new shopping center had thrown my judgment off, I mused, and turned around to retrace my steps.
Near the driveway leading to my husband’s office, I observed a fire station which was also new to me. That would be a good landmark to guide me to the company entrance in the future.
Jack saw my car approaching and came out of his building to greet me. Accepting the lunch with thanks, he leaned against the car.
“Jack, when did they build that new strip shopping center on Kirkman Road? Funny, but I don’t remember it being built, and it is already open for business.”
Jack frowned thoughtfully, then shook his head. I continued, “Oh, well, I’m glad to see the new fire station near your entrance. It will give me a good landmark.”
Jack laughed and again shook his head.
“Diane, that station has always been here,” he chided. “Even before my building was built!”
I suddenly became irate. I started the car and began to pull away from Jack, who leaped from his position leaning against the vehicle.
“Whoa! What’s your rush?”
I braked, staring before me in confusion. Where was the exit?