Tuesday, November 24, 2009

High school loyalty: that strange emotion that sustains you for the duration and then lingers all your life

Searching for my favorite red or green shirt to wear to the Anderson High School basketball game in Indiana on November 28, I stumbled across a box of old newspaper clippings. It included stories about the fire that destroyed the old school in 1999.

I sighed as I remembered the call about 4 p.m. that day …

“Monica,” my friend said, “our high school ...”

I can’t remember if she said, “is burning” or “is on fire.” The conclusion was the same: Our high school was gone.

While visiting my Indiana hometown just two days before, I had driven by the familiar structure several times. It stood empty, yet overflowed with memories. The proud Indian on the gymnasium made me hold my head up a little higher as it always had. That says a lot for high school loyalty, that strange emotion that sustains you for the duration and then lingers all your life.

I may live more than four hours away, but I’m still an Anderson High School Indian, proud of it even when that kind of mascot may be deemed politically incorrect nowadays.

Pardon me, but tough, please get over it.

We treated this symbol with great reverence and still do today.

Even the school song might be considered sexist today: “Let’s give a rah for AHS boys ....”

Pardon me, but tough, please get over it.

It’s an old song and that’s the way it was.

The world’s a different place than when I left in 1976, during the bicentennial of our nation and as part of Anderson High’s 100th graduating class. Talk about a year! We were overwhelmed with the patriotic red, white and blue, and the symbolic red and green school colors. The 25,000th graduate was a member of our class. It was an emotional time, personally and in the life of a building, of an institution. Though I had tired of 1776 bicentennial minutes that were part of the morning announcements, I loved reading our school’s history. That was something I could touch, something I relived in the trophy cases I passed every day, a new chapter of history I helped create during my years there.

I worked on the school newspaper in a cluttered, yet comfortable cubbyhole in the basement. Newspaper ink was injected into my veins early on and became my profession, thanks to the persistence of the tough, yet tender, Mr. Pursley. He taught me the value of truth and why that freedom must be preserved. I learned from the creative writing teacher, Mrs. Maine, the beauty of words and how they can change lives. She was right.

And it was to the literary magazine of my senior year that I turned the morning after the fire. It contained a red, flimsy record of the “Sounds and Scribbles of Anderson High School” that had been inserted into the 1976 issue. It had been quite an ambitious undertaking at the time, but has become one of my most precious high school memories, especially now.

It was then that the next stage of grief hit me, the tears, when I watched the red plastic spin the sounds of my life 23 years earlier. From being a lost newbie to watching the beautiful Indian mascot and maiden ceremony, all those powerful memories returned.

Along with the first day of my junior year when I met the lanky senior I would eventually marry.

Through my tears, I smiled. Holding hands on the way to class, being admonished by an administrator for kissing in the hallway. Hey, what did he know about young love! This was high school, man! It was more than books and learning, it was a place to have fun. It was more than bricks and mortar, it was a sense of belonging, a sense of community. I was grown-up. I was in high school. I was an AHS Indian.

I’m still an AHS Indian, as I will be the rest of my life. That high school pride is pretty powerful stuff. I was saddened by the closing of the school and then the fire. Both evoked precious and frivolous memories, the heart of who I was then and who I am today. That’s true for anyone, no matter what high school you attended.

Today, I’m still happily married to that senior boy, and we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary this year. Our son followed in his mother’s footsteps by graduating in a memorable year, 2000, though from Peoria High School, which reminds me so much of Anderson.

No matter how the walls have tumbled, what the flames have tarnished, or what the bulldozer swept away, a part of my heart will always reside at the corner of Lincoln and 14th streets in Anderson, Indiana. Add my portion to the loyalty of thousands of graduates who shared the heartache I experienced, and the invisible shrine will endure far longer than the brick and plaster that succumbed.

Yes, high schools are buildings, but it’s the people who bring them to life. We don’t see empty halls. We see crowds of individual students. We feel the cold metal of the lockers. We hear the rushed conversations between classes. We smell lunch being prepared or cookies burning in home ec. We taste the uncooled water in the water fountain.

Yes, it was a very good time, and a very bad time. Few of us would care to relive those teen years, but that’s why high school memories are so selective and so precious. Like the song says, I’ll be true to my school. My school song overflows with a message that never changes in that sentimental and spirited tune we imbed in our memories. My heart will continue to sing ....

Let’s give a rah for AHS boys,
And show a spirit seldom seen;
Others may like gold or crimson,
But for us it’s red and green.
Let all your troubles be forgotten,
Let high school spirit rule;
We’ll join and give a royal effort
For the good of our old school.

It’s AHS boys, it’s AHS boys,
With colors red and green so dear;
Come on you old grads, join with us young lads,
It’s AHS now that we cheer, RAH! RAH!
Now is the time boys, to make a big noise,
No matter what the people say,
For there is naught to fear, the gang’s all here,
So hail to the AHS boys, hail! RAH! RAH!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Alzheimer's: Just live in THEIR world!

Make it easier on yourself and everybody else and don't argue with someone who has Alzheimer's. If you do this or know someone who does this, stop it right now!

If they say the sky is green that day, then you know what? The sky is green!

A woman told me the other day how her mom keeps arguing with her grandma when grandma says she's waiting for HER mom and dad to pick her up. The mom keeps arguing that they've been dead for years!


Seize this opportunity to say, "How wonderful! What time will they be here? Where will you go today? How are they?"

You get my drift … right?

Use that as an opportunity to witness the childlike wonder and excitement in their eyes. Find out more about their parents and their childhood. The possibilities to relive that special moment are limitless!

Don't argue … enjoy!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Alzheimer's: Tap dance memories

Friday morning …

As she descended the steps of the bus at the adult day care center, I studied the woman's thin frame and how she greeted my companion with a smile. As she was introduced to me, I held my hand out to take hers.

"Ooh, your hands are warm!"

Laughing, I wrapped my other one around hers and gently rubbed some of my warmth into hers. And hand-in-hand, we entered the building as I noticed she had some vision problems.

"It's getting cold," she said. "I don't handle the cold as well as I used to."

"Well, today's warmer than usual for this time of year. I brought you some sunshine from Peoria, Illinois."


My companion explained to me how this woman had been a tap dance and ballet instructor for 52 years.

"Fifty-eight years," the petite woman corrected with a smile.

"Oh my goodness!" I said. "I took tap dance when I was a kid."

"Why didn't you continue?"

I smiled and explained how my interests had changed.

I let her join her friends and the staff and volunteers as they indulged in some freshly made pancakes.

Smiling, I observed this mix of about eight attendees, several of whom have Alzheimer's or dementia. My new friend, the dancer, was among them.

A staff member told me how this woman was a fixture in the community with her dancing expertise and how she had led a couple of programs during her time at the center on dance techniques … and how she still had the swing in those hips.

And she also had macular degeneration and was losing her vision.

Fast forward to Friday afternoon …

As I led a presentation for caregivers about coping with Alzheimer's, I noticed the frequent tears of a female attendee. Though it broke my heart, I stayed on track and completed my talk. At the conclusion, this woman came up to me. Before she said anything, I asked, "Can I give you a hug? I could tell this was tough on you."

And she let me hug her thin frame.

She said she was trying to deal with the challenges of her mother's Alzheimer's. It wasn't easy at times as her mother was a strong woman who knew how to command attention, especially after being a dance instructor most of her life.

"Is your mom …" I asked, saying the name of the woman I had met that morning.

"Yes." She was surprised.

I laughed and described how her mother had questioned why I hadn't continued my tap dancing lessons.

Yes, that was her mom.

I'm reassured of my belief that there are no coincidences in the universe. A family facing memory loss had unknowingly given me a special memory … and transported me back to the echos of those silver metal taps on my shoes across the wooden stage … the colored ribbons that replaced shoe laces, my stiff hair-sprayed head, the body suit costume and my brightly red painted cheeks so that I glowed on stage …

Yes, they had tap danced their way into my heart …

Friday, November 20, 2009

Alzheimer's: The ones who are forgotten

After I spoke at an Alzheimer's workshop recently, an RN in an Alzheimer's care unit came up and thanked me for my presentation, especially the part about how there is still a human being inside the shell of those with this horrible disease. She said she is particularly drawn to those patients who haven't had a visitor in years or simply have no family anywhere. She takes them into her heart as family.

I found that very touching. These are the folks who are truly forgotten. And there are some families who leave their loved one at the nursing care facility and never look back. Why? Everyone has a reason.

In my presentation, I talked about the need to remember to interact with someone with Alzheimer's, even in the latest stages. Interaction can be as simple as a smile or wrapping your hand around theirs or brushing their hair. We humans were created to be engaged with each other in many ways even when we have no memories left to share.

That's another reason I so admire those who work in hospice or like the RN previously mentioned who takes a few extra moments to shine her own light upon the faces of those patients who have no one or have been forgotten, whether it's Alzheimer's or any other condition that takes an individual into their final days on this earth.

Let's remember not to forget.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Alzheimer's and that mean old man

Meeting him for the first time on this particular day, you might think he was a "mean old man" if he scowled at you or called you a obscenity.

However, if you were introduced to him the day before or after, you'd likely be charmed by his infectious smile, wink, laugh or the funny faces he makes behind somebody's back. It could even be as little as an hour or five minutes earlier or later …

It's that damn Alzheimer's disease that creates those instant and heartbreaking transformations. It's that damn disease that steals the essence of the man he used to be, our husband, dad and grandpa.

It's Alzheimer's that shrinks his world and keeps him close to the comfort of familiar surroundings. Luckily, he's not one of the estimated 6 in 10 who are wanderers. He's content to sit for hours and observe the world that continues to swirl around him. Occasionally he'll shake his head at the odd or not-so-odd doings of others. He savors his glass of grape juice as if it's a fine wine.

It's just another day in the world of Alzheimer's … where he could be either the mean old man or the sweet old man …

We don't want either. We just want our husband, dad and grandpa back.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Alzheimer's: A kiss and candlelight

I attended the candlelight ceremony at the Alzheimer's Association office to remember those who had passed away from this horrible disease and to comfort those who still battle it. I took a candle, encircled by purple paper to protect my hand from dripping wax, and listened to the lyrics of a song about the pain created by Alzheimer's, the loss of companionship and all the things that make a loved one so special to us. I also focused on a poem read by a caregiver about missing the everyday joys.

As the staff lit our candles, I listened to the names of those who had passed away in the last year, some I knew, most I didn't, yet knew they left a unique circle of grieving family and friends behind. After staring into the glow of my candle for several moments, I gazed around the room. I observed …

The arm wrapped around a loved one in comfort.

The shaking shoulders of a man who wept silently over the loss of the love of his life.

The woman who sniffled and wiped her eyes as she remembered her late husband.

And the couple who sat in front of me.

The wife has Alzheimer's. From my seat, I could only see her face, but she looked into her husband's eyes with such intensity, and then their foreheads gently rested against each other, to give comfort, strength and love as his arm wrapped tightly around her. They lightly kissed and whispered something I did not, nor attempt to, hear because the love, fear and uncertainty in her face spoke far more volumes to me than any words.

I'll forever remember that kiss in the candlelight … an indelible reminder of how precious and powerful love can be. Sometimes it's the only prescription for this damn disease as we continue to pray for a cure and end to its cruelty … please God, open our human eyes, hands and minds to find the means to beat this NOW!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Stroke: I could have watched them dance all night

At first, I chuckled when I finally noticed after two years just how short Marylee was compared to her husband John. The evidence was clear as their arms wrapped around each other to slow dance as the chorus of performers serenaded couples with the sentimental favorite, "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You."

Then I simply smiled because, after a stroke, every dance is a celebration, no matter who leads or who follows, who stands or who sits, who laughs and who cries. It's such a beautiful scene to witness.

It takes a lot of love, commitment, sheer determination, compromise and a healthy dose of stubbornness for a couple to survive the challenges of a stroke. Sadly, not all marriages or relationships make it.

It's not easy, but Marylee and John have learned a lot and taught each other much more since John's stroke eight years ago, and continue to do so every day. So had the other couples here at Stroke Camp—that John and Marylee founded—couples that partnered well despite what may be the survivor's weakness or slowness or how they learn to sway to the music again. All that mattered was that two hearts were intertwined, that they could enjoy the beauty of a dance among new and old friends, a simple pleasure most of us take for granted, but a rare treasure for those fight their way back from a stroke.

Yes, I could have watched them dance all night all because I couldn't help falling in love with life again.

(Find out more about Retreat and Refresh Stroke Camp at www.strokecamp.org)