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Valentine's Day is a celebration of love, remembered or not.

There it was, much to everyone’s excitement, in all of its gaudy decorated glory: the Valentine’s Box sitting proudly in the back of the classroom.  Covered in finger-scalloped crepe paper and shiny hearts of red, white and pink by a few of the teacher’s artistically talented students, its message was clear.  The ordinary, newly transformed cardboard carton became a treasure trove  for valentines: small tokens of affection from one student to another.

At home you either made cards, or your mother bought a couple of books filled with “punch-out” valentines printed on both sides, or a package filled with 36 cards and envelopes for all your little friends – plus one for the teacher.  The day before the 14 of February, as you walked out of the classroom door with your lunchbox, books, papers and coat, the teacher stuck one more printed paper into your outstretched hand which included names of every single boy and girl in the class.  That was her way of saying, “Make sure you give everyone a card.  We don’t want any student to be forgotten.”  That was Valentine’s Day in elementary school.

In high school, they dispensed with such childish frivolities as elaborate Valentine’s Boxes, the day being just another school day, except that everyone was looking forward to the coming Friday night Valentine’s Day dance held in the boy’s gym.  The other exception was the special cards stuffed through the vent slots of certain lockers by handsome young swains and adorable girls, most being part of the popular group — the cliques – the in-kids; then there was everyone else.  That was my group: everyone else.

However, that exclusivity didn’t stop “the-everyone-else group” from having crushes on certain members of the opposite sex with whom no one outside of the cliques had a screaming chance.  For many of us, we took our non-couple status and dared to pursue the unsuspecting hunks on this special day of love by stuffing our own cards through the vent slots of their locker.  

My carefully chosen small token of affection for the dark-haired quarterback, which I signed with a question mark, was a sad-looking street urchin sitting on the curb.  The cover caption read, “Gee, Valentine’s Day ain’t no fun……,” continuing inside with, “…… ‘specially if you don’t got cha one.”  Other than having my English teacher suffer with an acute anxiety attack had I permitted her to read the grammar, the card was a total bust.  Mr. Football Star never knew I existed, and certainly didn’t much care who the unfortunate one might be with a name like question mark.  And that about summed up Valentine’s Day in high school.

Then I grew up, got married and in the doing I acquired my very own permanent and forever Valentine:  Ken.  We continued the romance of Cupid’s work with small tokens of affection on February 14: cards to one another, and cards slipped under everyone’s plate at dinner time when the children were small – and not so small — or a handful of candy hearts in their lunch box – just to say “I love you.” In return, their handmade cards for us were taped to the living room window for all to see.  And then the children grew up, married their own Valentines and moved away leaving just the two of us once again.

One year, while driving in the car I heard a radio DJ announce a Valentine’s Day contest with first prize being a get-away weekend for two at a romantic resort up the coast from San Francisco.  To win, all the contestants had to do was be the maker of the most original Valentine.  “Just mail your entry to the radio station where it will be judged, and the decision of the judges is final.”  “Simple enough, I can do that,” I said to me. Based on a childhood poem about a tin whistle, I cut up some tin cans, fashioned them into a greeting card with my own original “tin” verse and sent it to the radio station.

Did I win the weekend for two at the quaint romantic inn on the coast?  No.  But I did win 3rd prize:  A champagne basket and a dozen long-stemmed red roses would be delivered to my Valentine at his work the Friday before February 14, which was Saturday.

Wouldn’t Ken be pleased to have such a surprise Valentine delivered to his office?  I was excited.  However, on that very Friday, February 13, I received a second call from the radio station telling me they were soooo sorry, but deliveries were limited to San Francisco only.  No deliveries to the East Bay where we lived and Ken worked.  My surprise bubble had been popped. “But you can come over and pick up the basket yourself,” encouraged the DJ, still apologizing.  I agreed that we would do that.

It stormed 24 hours straight on Valentine’s Day.  Nevertheless, we sloshed across the Bay Bridge, meandered up and down Market Street through sheets of torrential rain finally spotting the florist where the prizes were displayed in the window.  Ken pulled into a vacant place next to a flooding curb – into which I could not avoid stepping.  He waited patiently in the car while I dashed through the rain into the shop where I picked up my prize – his small token of affection from me.  “Happy Valentine’s Day,” I crooned, handing him the beautifully filled basket — me and the prize dripping wet.  I’m still not sure if he felt the water-drenched trip was worth the Valentine, but he gave me a quick kiss adding – almost grumbling — “Thank You,” as we began the soggy trip home.

He gave the champagne to our neighbor while I rearranged the long-stemmed roses.  They were lovely on our intimate table in front of the fireplace where I finally surprised him with a cozy dinner for two.

There have been many other days celebrating St. Valentine, other dinners and other roses –with  none quite as memorable.  Never, have I made a more supreme effort to say “I love you” than with that small token of affection.  Nor, do I suppose, has he ever ventured out in such miserable weather just to make me happy while I was striving so hard to make him happy.  A paradox, you might say?  Probably — but such are the Valentine’s Days of devotion to someone you love — and to long-term married life.

Presently, I do believe Cupid’s quiver is empty at our house, but the cute cherub still hangs out here reminding me that small — and large — tokens of affection aren’t always tangible.  Nor do I need to get shot with one of his tiny pointed arrows to remind me that I do love this man.  I don’t love the strangeness that makes him who he is not — stealing him from me —  or the demons who keep him imprisoned within himself.  It’s Ken, who is losing his battle with AD — who has fought so hard for so long, that I love — and such is Valentine’s Day when you live with Alzheimer’s disease.

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rollercoaster

The ups and downs of Alzheimer's can be worse than any roller coaster ride.

I dislike roller coasters. From the first time I visited Play Land At The Beach, which was   a very long time ago, I was wary of the ride – intrigued – but wary.  The ancient granddaddy of fun loomed over the rest of the concessions like the skeletal mid-section of a mythical dragon; a grayish monstrosity of what appeared to be old pieces of weathering wood which I believed to be untrustworthy even when I was young.

The amusement park was located right across from the Pacific Ocean at the end of the Great Highway and just a short walk south from San Francisco’s famous Cliff House.  Even as a pre-teen I could hear the rickety structure clickety-clack and rattle as each line of speeding cars roared up and down the  mountains of lumber and track finally screeching to a jolting halt at the end of the line. Frightening, yet I was fascinated.  “Oh come on you big baby,” badgered one of my older sisters.  “You’ll love it.”  Scary though it was, I wanted to love it like everyone else.

The three of us climbed into the seat, the attendant dropped the safety bar as my sisters warned, “Now hang on and never let go or you might fall out.”  Fear griped me and we were off. Climbing up was all right, but the descent was horrific. I hated every blood-chilling moment.  Furthermore, with each threat of death I repented of all my sins – however many sins a pre-teen could accumulate – I was penitent.

Time and time again, whenever I visited Play Land with my sisters and friends I was coaxed back onto the roller coaster with the promise from someone, “Oh, you’ll like it this time.  You just have to get used to it.”  Fear-stricken, I repented once again promising to be ever so good.   Still, I hated my skinny little body getting bruised, slammed and thrown around with each jerking turn.  Minutes later and facing the last invisible decline over what seemed to be the edge of the world, terror froze deep in my throat while other passengers screamed and shouted with glee.

As an adult and the mother of five grown children not much has changed regarding roller coasters except they’re bigger, better and faster as they race over the modern, steel-supported network of tracks.  Ken loves them, and always has.  He was probably one of those smart-alecky kids who laughed, yelled and held his hands straight up in the air on every downward dive.

At Great America, where we went for a family day, that roller coaster not only did the up-and-down thing, the tube-like car also spun in circles.  “You’ll like this one,” Ken had insisted.  “Come with me.  It’ll be fun.”  It wasn’t.  I repented again — and then found the ladies room where I lost my lunch.

Feeling sorry for me we had a 7-UP to settle my still-pitching stomach and found my kind of ride: those cute little boats that carry you through a maze of tracks onto an intermediate slope sending the passenger-filled boat into a boxed-in lake where, for thrills, you get a good splashing of water.

With roller coasters, Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and even little boats now a part of our past, Alzheimer’s has brought us a new kind of roller coaster.  I don’t like this one either, and if Ken had his wits about him, he would be on my side.  Nevertheless, we’re both along for the ride whether we like it or not.  Unfortunately, there is no jolting stop where either one of us can get off – save it be death – or somehow a miraculous cure.  So we endure.

There are times when I see him fearful, as I was on that very first ride.  I know he is plunging into a down mood. “No!” he shouts.  “I’m not going.”  Going could be anywhere he’s doesn’t believe he wants to go, or it could be just his way of being independent.  Nevertheless, he means no — no to showers, to eating, to bed, for a ride, for a walk or to visit the doctor.  We might as well take him into the House of Horrors because he has that same expression of unknown fear in his eyes.

Later, when his mood changes to up, and he sees me not only as someone he recognizes, but as his wife, who he invites to sit beside him on the sofa.  I do and he puts his arm around my shoulders saying, “I love you.”  I sit closer and rest my head against his chest — snuggling in — and for a while it feels like old times – good.  His face is relaxed and he smiles when he looks at me.  For a while he is calm and quiet.  We just sit for as long as he’s willing — for as long as the up mood lasts.

His face begins to puzzle and I move away to prepare a simple dinner, hoping to have it finished before he becomes hostile.  Cleaning his plate with a crust of bread, his eyes begin shooting daggers at me.  “You don’t belong here,” he hisses, “get out of my house.”  I pretend to be accommodating and when he gets up to make certain I’m leaving, I close and lock the kitchen door behind him.  It’s good for Ken – and me – to take a break.

Quietly I watch him from around corners, and through a slit as I barely open the door.  He seems more peaceful sitting in a living room chair all by himself.  His mood is changing once again. “It’s cold in here,” I remind him knowing the ride is taking him up.  “Do you want to go where it’s warmer?”  He ponders my question, and then makes an excuse about why he can’t abandon his post or adjourn his imagined meeting.  I leave and try again minutes later – hoping he has forgotten my earlier attempt to get him into bed.

“Okay,” he finally agrees, his eyes groggy, and he follows me into the bedroom.  The covers turned back, he sits on the edge of the bed.   “You can put your feet up,” I suggest.  “With my shoes on?” he asks.  “Whatever you want,” I reply.  He still likes to make his own decisions, and then kicks off the moccasins, pulling his feet up onto the bed.

I place one of the blankets over him in much the same way I covered his children all those many years ago. “There,” I ask, “doesn’t that feel gooood?  Sooo nice and warm!  He is smiling, his eyes inviting.  “Do I get a kiss?” he asks.  “Of course,” I answer leaning over kissing him softly, gently; one more time as he whispers, “Goodnight.  I love you,”   “I love you too,” I reply, turning out the light.

The switch also closes the lights on the day’s roller coaster.  We’ve traveled through the gamut, which included Ken spitting in my face during the morning clean-up time with Ben, gouging my arm even though his fingernails are closely clipped, to the lovingness of a goodnight kiss.  Today is done, and I sigh with relief.  Some days the ride is more stressful than others, but no matter, we are forced to continue.  I hate the Alzheimer’s roller coaster more than all of the other electronic ones combined.

A few years ago, when his illness was milder, my sister asked, “How can you stand this day after day?”   I answered, “You just learn to live in the moment.  Don’t lament about losing the good times, or even begrudge the bad.  What we know for sure is that no matter where we are in any moment of our life it will change,” reminding her of our youthful pleasures and how happy those days could be, but they didn’t last and when they were gone we felt so wretched.  “Remember what Mama used to say to us during those down times — when we believed that life was the pits – she would remind us, ‘And this too shall pass away.’”

We all know that we can beat our chests and cry into the wilderness about how unfair life is, but it doesn’t change anything.  We can ask, “Why me?”  But there is no answer to that question.  We can be miserable and sad — or accepting – and in the accepting we can enjoy the small fragments of happiness which still come into our lives. Using the prayer of serenity you change those things you can, accept those things you cannot, and ask that God grant you the wisdom to know the difference.

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For Charlie Brown’s group happiness is a warm puppy.  For most kids it’s Santa Claus in the mall, Christmas morning and a new bike.  For lovers it’s their next meeting; a bride and groom their wedding day; students – graduation; for the unemployed it’s finding a job, and to a billionaire watching his stocks double is cause to gleefully celebrate.  For a young couple happiness comes with a new baby, and baby’s first smile brings immeasurable joy to its mother.   Happiness can be as constant as the surf splashing against the sand, elusive as shadows on a moonless night, and as fragile as a dandelion puff.  Happiness is many things to many people, but for me happiness is a choice.

I used to be a pouter.  Not recently, but when I was a young teen I somehow came to the belief that if I looked sad there would be a vast number of boys and girls who would want to be my friend if only to cheer me.  Illogical conclusion: sad had more appeal than happy. 

Our group of girls often went to local teen dances on Friday and Saturday nights.  The adorable bouncy girls with smiling faces were soon asked to dance while I sat against the wall, arms folded across my chest looking glum, hoping a cute guy, or not so cute, would take pity and ask me to dance.  I was the absolute archetype of a wall flower, and I didn’t know why, nor did any of my friends tell me to put a smile on my face and look happy.  Maybe my girl friends didn’t see me as a sad-looking dance dunce, but I was and I didn’t like it

Eventually I figured it all out.  It was more of a growing process, a maturing process when realization cleared the mystery concerning adorable girls.  It wasn’t about adorable, but more about bouncy and smiling faces.  My friends looked happy and I didn’t.  No one, even the kindest of cute guys, or not so cute, wanted to be stuck for any amount of time with Saddie Sad Sack.  So it was that I began my long journey in choosing to be happy.  Happiness didn’t come from without, it came from within.

Happy is an easy choice when the fates smile, when Mr. Right comes along, when babies arrive in addition to promotions and salary increases, when a new house is acquired and the lawn gets cut.   Just as in the story books:  “And they lived happily ever after.”

Time for a reality check:  Snow White’s babies had colic and threw up all over her favorite dress (actually her only dress), Cinderella’s prince was a lazy oaf who expected her to run the entire kingdom by herself, and Beauty’s beast, after all was said and done, turned out to be a grumbling turkey still decked out in the clothing and skin of a handsome fairy-tale prince. 

In spite of it all Snow, Cinder and Beau decided to work through life’s problems with their men, Charming, Charming and Charming, seeking help if needed setting happiness, once again, as their goal.   The babies grew into delightful children; the lazy oaf, threatened by Cinder’s Fairy Godmother who arrived with a pumpkin and a bunch of rats, fully accepted his responsibilities.  Under the prince’s guidance the kingdom flourished even without the touch of Godmother’s magic wand.  The doctor assigned to our snarling, growling beast removed several irritating rose thorns from Charming’s bottomside, which had been hidden under his very tight tights, returning him immediately to the prince of Beauty’s dreams.   

Life does ebb and flow.  While we would all like to remain in the flow, it just doesn’t work that way.  Adversity is a part of everyone’s life no matter what their rank or station.

If we are smart, during the good times when choosing to be happy is easy, we need to recognize our bounty of blessings and place them in a memory bank for future reference.  It’s during the ebb, the tough times, getting caught in the under current of misery when it’s difficult to say, “I’m happy.”  Yes, life can be miserable, and at times we all walk through the Valley of Doom and Gloom.  Interesting place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there.  Remaining in misery unless there is a clinical problem is also a choice.

It is not my intention to be a Pollyanna, constantly in denial, never acknowledging that things may go wrong, did go wrong, are wrong, or that life can become an overwhelming challenge, or that life is, at times, the absolute pits.  However, it is my intention to advise all the Snow Whites,  Cinderells,  Beautys, and their Prince Charmings to recognize that life does have a mean left hook and when you get whacked it’s best to meet it head on.  Dodging, denying, and hiding under the covers won’t make adversity go away.

When Ken was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s it was a tragic blow even though we were not surprised.  Knowing it was deeply entrenched in the family we had  thought we could somehow sidestep it if he ate right, exercised, and continued to live a clean, wholesome life.  We were wrong.  “Your husband has Alzheimer’s.”  That’s what the doctor said and that’s how he said it.

Did we go home happy, smiling, clicking our heels about his disease?  Of course not!  No matter how well prepared we were, the news was devastating.  We were sad.  We cried and finally we accepted the diagnosis, and then we took a road trip, planning to squeeze everything we could into a limited amount of time before the disease robbed Ken of his ability to be Ken.

I have long understood about the link between acceptance and happy before I listened to Michael J. Fox as he was interviewed for his book, “Adventures Of An Incurable Optimist – Always Looking Up,” but it was good to hear him verbalize what he too had discovered.  It was accepting his disease that finally brought him to happiness after making peace with Parkinson’s and then moving forward with his life.  Fox also emphasized how awful it would be to live in despair, but on the plus side mentioned how this adversity had led to so many amazing people and places.  I couldn’t agree more for I too have rediscovered the goodness, compassion, love and concern which is found in good people everywhere.

So I choose to be happy.  I answer the phone with a cheerful voice and keep the “Woe is me” off limits. Do I have sad times?  Do I cry?  Certainly, but I don’t remain in the negative because I choose to be happy.  There is not room for both.  My new answer to, “How are things going?” is “Smoothly.”  My grandson, Brain, tells me a better word is “Swimmingly,” whatever that means.  But then again “Swimmingly” might be a good response if it means going against the current and making it?  Perhaps I will change “Smoothly” to “Swimmingly.” 

Looking way down from where I perch in the sunlight I see the dark pit of despair, but using my right to choose I choose to not go there.  Being happy while coping with any of the Devil’s diseases is something one must choose to be on a daily basis.  That’s why each and every morning I remind myself, “Today, I choose to be happy.”

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“Hi.  This is Marvalee.”  “How good it is to hear from you,” I replied, “and what a nice surprise.  How long will you be here?”  Her voice always sounded bright and chipper with a touch of breathiness; the breathy part was that of a singer, and Marvalee was not only a singer, but a dancer as well, and had been most of her life. “I’m here from Maui visiting my mom,” she explained. “It’s her birthday you know.”  Yes, I knew, and I remembered the gala birthday parties Ken and I attended celebrating with Eva as her friends and family gathered to sing and dance away the previous year.  Marvaleee continued, “If you are free, I would love to come over and sing a few songs for Ken.” “That would be just lovely,” I answered.

The daughter of Ed and Eva, who were also entertainers – musicians —  and I use the past tense because they no longer perform.  Ed has long since passed on, a victim of Alzheimer’s, and following his inability to continue as their leader, members of the colorful band dispersed and retired.   Soon after Ed’s death, Mother Eva was stricken with the same dreaded disease, and has been with a caregiver for nearly ten years. 

The family, all from Hawaii, came to the Mainland to entertain in the best way they knew: songs and dancing Hawaiian style.   During the heyday of luaus, fire dances, flowing muumuus and island shirts, the band was very successful.  Natural musicians, most played by ear providing what Ken and I called the most danceable music in town.

Attending a luau whenever we could get tickets, Ken soon became known as a good sport.  Catching the eye of one of the gorgeous dancers, he was soon invited on stage to learn the hula or some other exotic dance.  My husband could be such a clown,and loved being in the limelight.  Wrapped in a grass skirt and wearing a lei he swayed back and forth as if he knew what he was doing.  He didn’t.  When the music stopped, Ken and the chosen others, bowed to a cheering round of applause, and returned to their tables – laughing.  He was, as always, a fun, if not an embarrassing, date.  And Marvalee, whose beauty and dancing rivaled no one, could always find him no matter where we were sitting.

 Soon after she called, the bell rang.  My door opened wide welcoming Marvalee and her friend, Mary.  The two burst into song, “Oh you beautiful doll……..”  My spirits were lifted even with my considerable hair loss and scar across my forehead.   Entering, we exchanged hugs and Alohas.  Approaching Ken for the same hug, he stiffened and drew back as I warned them not to get too close, he needed time to be comfortable with newcomers.  He was no longer a good sport, nor was he a fun date, and he didn’t remember Marvalee.

 Living most of her time away from the Mainland, she had no way of knowing how much Ken had regressed.  The fun-loving man she had remembered was gone.  Rather he sat down in a chair and glared at her, his lips drawn in a tight, straight line.  “At times Mama looks at me with those same tight lips,” Marvalee commented, Mary agreeing.  We compared notes.  We hadn’t seen Eva since January, but at the time she smiled at us and while she didn’t know exactly who we were, she knew we were important in her life.  “Probably not any more,” said Marvalee with sadness’.  “Most of the time Mama’s eyes are vacant and she doesn’t remember me – nor any of the family.”

Later Marvalee opened her music case and brought out a polished ukulele.  Strumming a few cords, she adjusted the strings and began.  Lilting strains of Island music filled the room and she began to sing.  They were newer songs than what her father and mother had played, and unfamiliar to Ken.  He sat in his chair, his lips still drawn in a tight, straight line.  Transitioning one song into another, the two women harmonized away the afternoon.  Ken hardly moved a muscle.

Her fingers moved across the strings once again and suddenly familiar music filled the air followed by the memorable lyrics from long ago, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.  You make me happy……..”  It was if the very sun had broken through the clouds.  Ken’s face came alive and he looked over at me, a broad smile erupting on his mouth.  Her words continued, somehow finding a path through the fog of tangled and forgotten memory.  Lovingly he looked at me, just me, and then he winked and pursed his lips as if to blow a quick kiss.   We were two souls locked in a moment of warmth by yesteryear’s melody and words.  A tear or two of happiness spilled down my cheeks, and I felt gratitude for Marvalee’s thoughtfulness and music, and for my brief flash of joy.

Marvalee played a bit longer; songs from the past and Ken continued to smile, but not in the same way and not at me.  Music had reached him, and he must have experienced a spark of reality and realized that something pleasant had taken place. For a time he was social and polite. “Thank you,” he called as the two women left.  I walked them to the door and gave each another hug and another “Aloah, thank you.”  “It was my pleasure,” Marvalee whispered.  “I got to see Ken smile — just at you.”

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