The Cards We’re Dealt


June 8, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand. – Randy Pausch

Mailbox cartoon icon isolated on vintage background

A funny thing happened after I sent my mother her birthday card last week.

It was a card I picked out especially for her. Not a sentimental card in the traditional sense. On the front cover was a photo of a little girl in a 70s version of bad plaid pants. The inscription read: “It’s not just the clothes, it’s the attitude.”

I picked it because cute children continue to get a positive emotional response from my mother; because we affectionately used to refer to her as “something of a clothes horse;” and because Alzheimers has brought out the occasional display of Attitude. Given how much my father’s personality dominated our home growing up, I have to admit this has been an interesting development.

The raspberries have become a potent form of self-expression for my mother, as has the eyeball roll.

On a few occasions I’ve been there when my father has barked at her one too many times –

“Don’t you want a warmer coat?”

“Of course you want a warmer coat!”

“No, no, your blue coat! Don’t you know where your blue coat is? Do I have to do everything?”

“Come on, now, you’re slow as molasses, we’re going to be late!”

– she will climb into the back seat of the car and make me sit in front with him.

So that’s why I picked out the card.

I’m terrible at sending cards myself (as I mentioned last week), so I don’t really expect to get any.

At least now that my mother is not On the Case. But a card was in fact dealt me. It came the day after my mom’s birthday, from my brother and sister-in-law.

Okay, really it was from my sister-in-law.

I opened the card. And there she was staring back at me.


Even stranger than this was the immediate feeling that I’d already known she’d be there.

My grandmother also had Alzheimers.

Up until recently I had assumed that my mother had about six or seven years on her where dementia was concerned. It was not until she came close to her eighth decade that the trouble with names and numbers began, that she began writing the wrong years on checks, that words would get jumbled. As recently as this time last year, we were still reading books together.

I thought my mother’s better education, her commitment to exercise, the higher quality medical care she had received over her lifetime, and the fact that she’s had my father to rely on – my grandmother was a widow at 68 – had given her an advantage. That if there was a genetic predisposition, she had managed to delay it – even before the Aricept was prescribed.

Apparently live brains do wear plaid...

Apparently live brains do wear plaid…

The last time I saw my grandmother was at her own birthday party.

My Aunt Alice and Uncle Fred had finally moved her into a retirement community in Harborcreek, the suburb where they lived. The party was held in the common room. We were there with a three year old and a fifteen month old in tow, both of whom – since we lived in Michigan –my grandmother might have been seeing for the first time.

I remember my aunt being particularly nervous about the speed with which Aidan propelled himself through the room by pushing a chair around. He was no longer using a walker, but seeing all those frail adults with their own must have made the child nostalgic.

I remember a conversation about not wanting to wait for the milestone birthday because someone – my aunt? – was afraid Grandma was deteriorating too quickly.

So for the longest time I had this event pegged as her 73rd or 74th birthday. But if Aidan, who was born in February 1989, was pushing chairs around the common room, it was 1990 when this party was held. My grandmother was born in 1911. That means she was 79, a scant year younger than my mother when she declared, at her own milestone birthday, that she had never seen my cousin Stephen in her life.

I remember kissing my grandmother’s rouged cheek at the party. It felt as soft as it always had. I remember that she cried a lot; but then, she always had.

And I remember the smell of melted plastic. That was new.

My cousin Cindy and I had gone up to see her apartment. It didn’t take long to find the source of the smell. The toaster oven light was on, and inside was what looked like a lumpy blue caterpillar. On its back the letters SMTWTFS slid incomprehensibly into one another.

“Grandma!” my cousin cried. “That’s not where your pills belong!” My grandmother giggled. There was a sly look on her face, as if she knew she had been naughty, but thought the joke was really on us.

Perhaps it was.


23 thoughts on “The Cards We’re Dealt

  1. Oh Paula. My mother-in-law is in Stage III Alzheimer’s and to witness her deterioration is heartbreaking. She’s only 78. It is a cruel, cruel disease. I wish you peace of heart.


    • I am sorry to have taken so long to get back to my comments, Julie. It was a very busy week. Yes, Alzheimers feels very cruel. And yet cruel is a word we use when there is someone to blame. I think that is one of the things that makes it so hard for my father. Who is responsible? Who can he get mad at? Whose supervisor can he complain to?


  2. Judith Post says:

    I love the card your sister-in-law sent you. That IS some attitude! Even a hand on the hip:)


  3. Love this: “And I remember the smell of melted plastic. That was new.” And the following paragraph. Sometimes, in lucid moments, people rebel. ;-) I remember that from my grandmother.


  4. Mary Rowen says:

    This reminds me of my husband’s grandma, who died a few years ago at 99. Bless her soul; she lived independently until she was in her early 90s, but when she began to forget things like meals, needed more care and went to live in a nice nursing home. And it seemed that the older she got, the naughtier she became in her more lucid moments. She had all kinds of tricks–hiding candy, sneaking out of bed when she wasn’t supposed to, telling dirty jokes–and she took great pride in them. According to my mother-in-law, she’d been completely prim and proper when she was younger, but the dementia brought out another whole side of her. In any case, she was a beautiful and funny woman, and we all miss her dearly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have heard other, similar stories about naughty behavior. Of course my mother also does things that are in character, but made it clear her judgment is impaired. There was the phone call I had with her this evening, in which she struggled to tell me something that she thought it important I know. And that was that both her parents were dead. Now I know my dad has had to repeat this over and over to her, and I know it upsets her to go through it each time anew. But what touched me deeply tonight was that she seemed concerned that I might not know this, and wanted to break it to me gently.


  5. Anita Stout says:

    I’m going to try toasting my medicine from now on. I may consider removing the plastic though. Great post as always Paula.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. jan says:

    Oh my, did the poor dear think they’d taste better toasted? Love those plaid pants. Snazzy!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. caslee2000 says:

    That is an incredible card, and I love the hand-on-the-hip attitude!
    When my Nana, who was a tough cookie, was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she became nervous for the first time in my memory. But, at that point, it was so early that she was aware that she was forgetting. She left herself little reminders so that she could avoid embarrassment. I would find them everywhere. Once the disease had progressed to a certain point, she let go of tough cookie, and the nerves and would just sing. All the time, sing. It was so hard for my Aunt, her daughter, but at the same time Nana was just so happy. Every Irish jig, melody, you name it, that was what we were treated to all the way through.
    Thank you for sharing this with all of us!


  8. bikerchick57 says:

    I used to have a jacket made out of similar plaid material. I was in my 20’s when I wore it. True story.

    As your mother read books, my mother used to do crossword puzzles religiously and I think how awful she hasn’t been able to that for some time, let alone have the ability to comprehend the clues or come up with an answer. After dad passed away three years ago, it became evident that mom had relied on him for many things, one of which was keeping dates and medical appointments straight. Today, mom is more confused than ever and all I can say to you, Paula, is enjoy every moment you have with your mom, regardless of her Alzheimers and because of her attitude. Mom’s attitude makes me laugh and I think that’s part of the reason she keeps going. I wish the best for your mom.


    • Yes, I feel the same way. She’s actually trying to read again; my sister bought her a Debbie Macomber book, which I have to admit is not my favorite reading, but I’m following along and trying to help out. The problem is that she can’t remember what has come before. I’m reading a David Sedaris book right now, and although she would have trouble with some of the content, it occurs to me that each story is pretty self-contained, and maybe I should look for something like that for her. Right now I just tell find out what page she is on and recount the story up to that point to her. Usually she acts like she knows nothing about it. I can tell that when she reads to me she’s focusing now on sounding out words and reading aloud, and I’m not sure how much comprehension there really is when she does that – or when she’s reading to herself. But it is a familiar habit, and I hope that still helps some.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. elainemansfield says:

    What a synchronicity. Thank you for another powerful Alzheimer’s post with all the sad weirdness of navigating this disease. My meticulous maternal grandmother started losing things when she was around 80. She often stashed them in the refrigerator. When she stripped naked in the backseat while my mother drove through city traffic to take her to the doctor, it was funny, but not Mom. Soon Grandma was in a nursing home.

    When my mom began leaving books and keys in the refrigerator, I knew what was happening. It could have been pill boxes in the microwave. Those Master’s Degrees, years of travel, dedication to exercise and good diet, and her career accomplishments didn’t provide any protection. None.


    • We all think, and perhaps fervently pray if we were completely honest, that those Master’s degrees, exercise and diet, studying languages, years of travel will be our talisman.
      It will be our shield against this sly will-o’-the-wisp that steals us away, leaving behind broken bits and pieces.
      And what protection does it provide? You so beautifully sum it up in one word, Elaine.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Actually, I found my keys in the microwave once when I was 44. I was finishing up an annual report late at night, and under a lot of stress, and I had meant to heat up a mug of coffee for the drive home. We laughed about it at the time, but it’s always haunted me.


  10. momseesall says:

    Do you think perhaps we’re related, because that sounds an awful lot like MY grandmother…naughty to a fault but, oh so lovable. Thanks for sharing your memories.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Blog Stats

  • 132,295 hits
%d bloggers like this: