Every summer, Bay Path University’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction writing offers a weeklong Writing Seminar based in Dingle, a town nestled on the Atlantic coast on the western shore of County Kerry, Ireland. Each day throughout the week, Seminar Facilitator Suzanne Strempek Shea gives participants a prompt to encourage writers to investigate new ideas and topics in their writing. During August 2020, we’ll publish our Emerald Blogs to showcase the diverse work developed from responses to Suzanne’s prompts.
From Suzanne Strempek Shea
Several of the workshops in our annual Summer Writing Seminar workshops are generative, and Deirdre Mahoney made the most of the opportunity to create in a 2018 workshop with Dinty W. Moore titled “Literary Nonfiction: The Truth, Artfully Arranged” during her second time with us in Dingle. Daily prompts in the workshop focused on detail, character, voice, and other key craft elements, but Deirdre doesn’t know the exact one that sparked this honest and artful essay. All of its readers can be grateful for her candor and for the strength it took to retrieve these moments so keenly.
What It’s Like
by Deirdre Mahoney
He hovers over the Keurig machine trying to make a teabag produce coffee.
Is he brushing his teeth these days? No toothbrush in either bathroom or by the utility sink in the basement. Putting folded clothes away, I discover his plastic toiletry case poking out from under a pile of hand-knitted socks in the top drawer of the dresser. It contains five or six toothbrushes, all seemingly new and recently opened. Does he un-package a new one each time he brushes his teeth? When did that start? Why haven’t I noticed?
The phone rings less than three feet from where he sits with his eyes closed. He doesn’t flinch. A diminished sense of smell was one of the earliest symptoms; that occurred well before memories began to recede. Recently, I’ve noticed that items within eyesight don’t always register. He doesn’t see the carton of milk on the counter, his shaving cream on the shelf, the TV remote in the basket I ask him to hand to me when it’s time for Jeopardy! Surely the phone’s jarring ring should elicit a response. Does the ringing not register? Is he confused about what to do? Is this what lack of motivation—a common behavior listed in the literature—looks like?
Although he no longer reads them, I still carefully choose fly-fishing books for holidays, birthdays, and no-particular-reason gifts. It’s a three-decade habit.
I arrive home from campus on a chilly April evening to find him sitting in the dark wearing polarized sunglasses to watch the evening news. I kiss him on the forehead and scan the kitchen counter. Taking two stairs at a time, I head to our bedroom and check the bedside table. No luck. I dash back downstairs and recheck the living room before heading to the basement to scout the folding table where he’s been arranging stones he discovered on beaches in Leland and Northport, Michigan. Again, no luck. “If I were his eyeglasses,” I ask myself, “where would I be?”
The answer: anywhere.
I trail up to bed late and find him asleep in the Levis, flannel button-down, wool pull-over sweater, and striped socks he wore all day. And the day before. I pop the tank out of his CPAP machine, fill it with distilled water, and adjust the finicky face mask, repositioning the Velcro closures around his ears. I tap the start button and crawl in next to him, but before I turn off the bedside lamp, I pass my hand over his face to feel his breath.
He’s taking the dogs for a quick walk, he announces. Faithful friends Zelda and Phaedrus fixate on his every move, then agitate when he retrieves a single leash and walks alone out the back door toward their regular route.
As we drive 30 miles from Traverse City to Northport, he’s content and quiet until we round a curve and the view of Lake Michigan is no longer obscured. He points to a mirage on the water, a number of illusory islands in the distance. “An archipelago,” he offers.
“Do you think they’re real, the islands?” I ask, downplaying my surprise at his use of archipelago, a specialized term, the kind of word once a natural part of his lexicon.
“Well, you see them too. There’s your answer,” he says.
After we return home, I mention his previous reference to an archipelago. He has no idea what I’m talking about. I coach him. I reference our drive earlier in the day, mention him pointing to what looked like islands in the bay. I want him to recall the setting. He can’t but he’s amused by the idea of a mirage, an archipelago, by something he noticed earlier and now can’t remember, even with my prompting.
He mows part of our front lawn and part of the neighbor’s. Task complete.
I hear him at the front door chatting with unfamiliar voices and intervene. Should I post a “No Solicitation” notice on the cedar siding? Is it time to stash the checkbook and remove the remaining credit card from his wallet?
It’s Father’s Day 2018, and I have forgotten to pick up a card. Don’t worry, I tell myself. He won’t notice.
He’s antsy for a bike ride, but the sun will set within the hour and the mid-summer sky threatens rain. I suggest putting it off until the following day, hoping that sounds like a casual request. Recently, I’ve seen frustration when I crowd his independence. I’m seeing it again, so I cave. “Maybe keep it close to home, just to Garfield and back,” I say, mentally calculating the 15-minute round trip. When a soft rain begins to fall a half hour later and there’s still no sign of him, I begin to worry. As I consider how the combination of drizzle and dusk might disorient him and how I have enabled this insanity, I move into batshit-crazy-full-on panic.
My rational friend Rachel, who’s visiting for the evening, guides me to her car. While she drives, I scan the streets and alleys. Twenty minutes later we spot him biking toward home from opposite the direction we discussed earlier. It’s clear I can no longer trust his ability to keep with a plan. Rachel and I race home, repark the car, and return to sitting and chatting as if we’ve been doing so all along. Alerting him to my alarm doesn’t make sense. Frayed synapses are the problem here, not staunch willfulness on his part. Best to let him enjoy the evening without upset while I consider options to avert future disasters.
There’s a café at the co-op in my neighborhood where I steal time in the early morning, just me with my thoughts and my laptop. I justify the self-indulgence as self-care, but self-care sometimes dissipates as I observe a couple, regulars, folks like us. The “us” we once were. He orders and pays at the counter, then brings their coffees to the table close to the window where she sits waiting.
“How can I help?” he asks. Brown spots in the yard signal that the grass needs extra water during the summer’s relentless scorching weather. My to-do list is long this day, so I welcome his offer. He listens closely as I point to the backyard and say, “Move the sprinkler a few feet but don’t let the water hit the sidewalk. Keep the water on the grass.” He leaves the room and goes somewhere, not outside.
He still makes our bed each day. I take note of how well, as if his bed-making skills parallel the progression of the disease.
It comes out of nowhere. It always does. The sense of dread. The panic. The future. The when. The what ifs. What if I can’t make it work? What if I have to make unimaginable decisions? What then? What if I get it wrong? What next?
Then I hear the words of our elder attorney—who refers to me as “dear,” and I let him.
“Just put it to bed,” he said the last time I called him with more questions and worries. He said what I needed to hear. It clicked. Just put it to bed. I’ve done what I can to prepare. Time will run its course. The disease is fatal. The progression continues. I can’t control the outcome. None of us can.
Just put it to bed.
About the Writer
Deirdre Mahoney is on the English faculty at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, Michigan. Currently, she is working on a collection of narrative essays based on her experience of living with and caring for her late husband who died from complications of younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Write with us in Dingle next year, July 31 to Aug. 8, 2021. Contact [email protected] for full information.
We welcome submissions to Multiplicity Blog (nonfiction prose of 1,000 words or fewer, poetry, and photography) all year. Click here for more details on submitting to Multiplicity Blog. From September 25-October 30, we are also accepting submissions of brief true stories and reflections on the Black Lives Matter movement (100 words or fewer) for “Multiplicity Commons: Readers and Writers Respond to Black Lives Matter.” Click here for more details on submitting to Multiplicity Commons.