by Maggie Saunders
My husband Sandy and I sat at our weathered pine table, smiling lazily at each other, as the girls finished their homework. The last of the afternoon sun streamed down through the kitchen window. I stood and collected our empty hot chocolate mugs and headed over to the sink.
“What does everyone feel like for dinner?” I asked, the telephone on the wall suddenly drowning out my words.
I set the mugs in the sink and grabbed the receiver. “Hi. This is a surprise,” I said as I heard my mom’s voice on the other end. “Is everything OK?”
“Hello, sweetheart, we’re at home, safe and sound. Everything’s fine. Three months was long enough for our first time out. Are the girls there? We’ve really missed them.”
“Sure mom, I’ll get them. We’ve all missed you as well.”
While she chatted to the girls, I heated up some leftover stew and popped the biscuits into the oven. Ten minutes later dinner was ready and the girls were finished catching Mom up on their news.
Taking the receiver back, I said, “Feel like company tonight or do you want to wait until tomorrow?”
“Coffee’s already on and Dad and I are just having an omelet for dinner. Why don’t you all come over when you’re done eating?” she asked.
“Great, we’re just sitting down; we’ll be over in an hour.”
Sitting down to eat, we talked about Mom and Dad.
“Remember how excited Dad was when he kissed his W900L farewell in June?” I laughed.
“He danced all the way down to the Winnebago dealer,” Sandy said. “Remember the look on his face when he slid behind the wheel, dragging Mom with him? He was finally going to show her all the places he’d been. Finally be able to explore all those places he couldn’t get the truck into or didn’t have time to stop and see.”
“Come on, girls. Let’s eat up and head over,” I said.
The four of us gulped down our meal, ran to the car and raced over to their house.
In between hugging and laughing and making drinks it took 20 minutes before we calmed down enough to listen to each other. Both of them told us of their adventures and mishaps.
“Dad actually got lost a few times,” Mom joked. “I ended up guiding us through L.A. That was pretty scary.”
He looked up, puzzled for a moment. Then, with a faint smile, he said, “I don’t think so. Now you’re just pulling their legs. I know that city inside out. I’ve been going there for over 30 years.”
Trying to ease the sudden tension, I answered, “Age does that to all of us. Just the other day I forgot which road turned up to the dentist’s office.”
The conversation slid on to the San Diego Zoo as Mom and Dad both described the animals they had seen to the girls. After we drank our coffee and examined all our souvenirs, the girls were starting to fall asleep. Hugs all around and we packed up and headed home.
That night, lying in bed, I was thinking about Mom’s comments.
“Didn’t you think it was strange that Mom said Dad got lost,” I said to Sandy. “You know as well as I do that he could tell you where every curve and hill was on a road he’d only traveled once. I know we’ve been working hard, but how could I have missed something this big?”
“Maybe it’s only showed up now that he’s finally slowed down. You know what it’s like, when you don’t have to remember anymore, you don’t,” said Sandy.
“Well maybe, but it’s pretty weird. He certainly seemed defensive about it. I think next time we’re over I’ll take Mom aside and find out what the deal is. In the meantime, back to work tomorrow. Goodnight, my love.”
The next morning as I made my deliveries, I thought about Dad and the life he had given me. Dad was a trucker and, thanks to him, so am I. He stepped into his first truck at 16 and has been worshiping them ever since. As soon as I could walk, I spent every summer traveling with him.
At lunchtime I pulled into the Safeway parking lot and backed onto the dock to unload. They said it would take about an hour, so I planned to use the time to eat my lunch and get caught up on my paperwork. As I sat in the driver’s seat, the passenger door opened and my mother jumped in.
“Mind if I join you for lunch?” she asked with a smile. She was holding steaming soup and fresh-baked buns.
“Mom, you can join me for lunch even without the bribes, but they are graciously accepted. I’m glad you stopped by. I was telling Sandy last night, I wanted to get you alone to find out what’s happening with Dad. You are back kind of early. Is everything really OK?”
“Remember how Dad used to work for that small cartage company when you were little? He’d deliver freight to all the little towns and take you with him.” she started.
“That brings back memories, I still remember his routine. Walk around the truck, check over everything, start the engine, grab the hammer and pound the tires. I still do the exact same thing. Can’t break the habit,” I said with a chuckle. “Of course,” I said, flexing my arms, “I never built up the kind of muscles he did. I never had to use armstrong steering.”
“He always dreamed of the open road, but he always said there would be time when you had grown up,” Mom reminisced. “I remember I was so surprised when he finally decided to do it. You had decided you were going to work at the hardware store and go to college. I thought he had actually forgotten about his dreams. It was very exciting for him to find his first job. Do you remember? He started with Jim running just to the province.”
“I remember. He missed a lot of birthdays after that but he seemed very content. I know that in those years I was pretty self-absorbed. You went back to work at the high school after upgrading your teaching certificate and I took over as manager at the hardware store after I graduated. I remember those years as us all living our separate lives. Most importantly, though, I do remember the day I went to him and said I was fed up with working inside, and I wanted to become a truck driver.”
Mom laughed and said, “I remember thinking your father’s going to love this conversation, and I told you to give him a call.”
“He was thrilled and taught me to drive. Once I got my license, I gave my notice; he arranged it with his company and I jumped into his tractor. I can’t believe it was four years Dad and I ran team all over North America. He taught me everything I needed to know, from backing up to the docks in Montreal to delivering machines to the goldmines of northern Nevada. The equipment had sure changed over the years. We could hear ourselves speak without yelling. We actually had separate air ride seats and upper and lower bunks. I remembered he liked a late night coffee with a doughnut, and he remembered how much I hated mornings. We had a lot of arguments but even more laughs. Those were wonderful years.”
“Then you met Sandy and got married,” Mom said. “He was very supportive, but I think you made the right decision to come off the road when you got pregnant. I was always worrying about you swinging those chains around.”
“That’s called tying down the load, Mom, not swinging chains around, but you’re right. I would have hated for anything to happen away from home. It worked out well though; I’m back running local just like Dad did. It would break my heart to miss the girls growing up. Mom, how long has Dad been having these memory lapses?”
“For the first few weeks everything was fine, then, as he relaxed, it started. He would forget a turn, or forget the name of the campground we had booked,” Mom explained. “I think he’d been trying to control it for some time but as he unwound it started to show. While he was working he wasn’t around anyone for any length of time, so he could hide it. I think it’s getting worse.”
I just stared at her; I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed. My mother smiled gently and held my hand. “I didn’t notice either, so don’t feel too bad. You know your father, he’s a strong man, he never lets show what he doesn’t want to. I finally convinced him to come home and see the doctor. I was hoping you could join us. Your father will listen to you, and I would like a second pair of ears to understand what the doctor’s going to say.”
“Of course,” I replied, “let me know and I’ll book the day off. Do you need anything else?”
“No thanks, we’re all right for now,” she said. “I’m glad you’re near. I think we’ll both be needing you.”
We hugged and said goodbye.
Two weeks later, the doctor confirmed our worst fears. Dad had Alzheimer’s. We had been expecting it, but it was still devastating. We pulled ourselves together to listen.
The doctor explained the illness to my father. “There are many ways the disease manifests itself, but generally your short term memory will continue to worsen. As you progress, you will spend more and more time flashing on the past. You will have periods of clarity but those will become less and less. Try to exercise your mind and you may help to slow the progression. Unfortunately, there is no treatment or cure.”
“I read about some new drug they are testing that is supposed to slow the onset of the disease,” I said.
“There are experiments going on all the time, but there is nothing approved for use yet. There is a lot of money being spent, but I am not hopeful anything will be available in the next few years. We’ll certainly prescribe anything that comes available. In the meantime, I suggest you study up on the disease to prepare yourself for the future. Good luck.”
We followed his advice and continued on with our lives.
Not much more than a year later, I sat on the edge of their brown couch, smiling at Dad in his faded recliner. He watched the sky darkening with early twilight. I glanced around at the paintings of nature scenes hanging on the walls as I listened to him talking to himself and laughing. I was now unable to share the joke or understand his train of thought. Looking down at his hand in mine, I softly rubbed it. I wondered if he thought about our life together as I often did. I wondered if he understood how much he meant to all of us, how proud we were of him.
Night had fallen, and the room was dark. I went to stand up to put on the lights and felt his hand faintly squeeze mine. I looked across into his eyes, and he gave me his old wonderful smile. Quietly he said, “I am very proud of you, Joan. You became a really good driver.” Through tear-filled eyes I replied, “Thanks Dad, I had the very best teacher.” He turned and faced the window, once again lost in his sea of memories.