Over and Under and Back from Whence you Came
By Michael Verde
Posted 12 April 2004
Michael Verde teaches English and and co-directs the Alzheimer’s and Multiculturalism
Initiative at Lake Forest Academy with Gloria Harper in Lake Forest, Illinois. He
has a M.A. in literary studies from University of Iowa, and a M.A. in theology from
University of Durham, England. In 1985, Michael won first prize in Guideposts magazine’s
National Youth Writing Contest with a story about his grandfather, who at that time
had not been diagnosed with AD. He has an article appearing this November in Illness
in the Academy: A Collection of Pathographies by Academics.
My name is Charlie Leonard. The Lord took away my mind. I went
to the doctor for indigestion and he gave me a pill-a white pill about this big-and
it worked. Cured my indigestion. But it wiped my mind clean. Used to I could remember
names like nobody's business. Maybe I met you twenty years ago, say, at a football
game. And we talked about your kids. Twenty years later if I saw you at the post
office, I'd remember you no problem. "Hello, Bob," I'd say. "How you been getting
along?" I might not remember your kids' names, but I'd remember where they went
to school, and if they played sports. I might even remember what position they played.
I had a good memory, boy. But the Lord wiped it all away.
I was born in Oklahoma. My mother's people came from Kansas. They had to. My grandmother
killed a woman there, a Polock. The woman made her sister cry. In those days people
used to wash their clothes at the crick—we call it a creek now, but back then
they called it a crick. All the women had a certain day that they did their washing,
and my Aunt Ruthie's day was on Thursday. So one Thursday Ruthie goes down to the
crick and a Polock woman is there washing her clothes. Ruthie explains to the woman,
very politely, that Thursday is her day and that she really needs to get her clothes
clean because there is a barn-building and quilting-party coming up that weekend.
The Polock woman—and she was a big, stocky woman—tells Ruthie that she
doesn't care about any barn-building and quilting-parties. She's going to wash her
clothes if it takes all night and half the next. By the time Ruthie got back to
the house she had worked herself all up; she was crying and carrying on. "What happened?"
my grandmother asked. Ruthie tells her what the Polock woman said. "Is that right?"
my grandmother asks. That was all she said: "Is that right?" Then she turns her
apron inside out, goes over to the basin and gets my grandfather's razor and slips
into her pocket. She walks down to the crick. When she gets there, the Polock is
bent over by the shore putting Blue-in in a bucket. Back then people put Blue-in
in a bucket of water and that was about all the washing machine they had. My grandmother
says to the woman, "Excuse me, but I believe today is my sister's day to wash."
Well the Polock woman got smart with her-she told my grandmother something like,
"I don't see your sister's name anywhere on this crick?" She was a good Christian
woman, my grandmother, but she didn't tolerate foolishness. "Is that right?" my
grandmother said. Then she walked up behind the Polock woman and pushed her head
down into that bucket of Blue-in and gave her two good whacks with her razor, one
on each side of her neck-cut the muscles clean through. Then she slipped the razor
back in her apron and walked back to the house and told Ruthie, "Ruthie, better
go get the men out of the fields. We're gonna have to move." They packed everything
they owned in the wagon and left Kansas for Oklahoma that day.
I was twenty-two years old before I asked my grandfather a single thing about his
life. At twenty-two, I was lucky to have a grandfather still alive and of healthy
mind, but at that age who fathoms the value in a blessing like that? I was a student
at the University of Texas at the time, preoccupied with finding myself, as my parents'
generation called it. The intellectual breakthroughs that I imagined in high school
would be my daily college fare—the cathartic all-night confessionals, the
romantic whirlwind, the revolution in religious and political sensibility—none
of these rites of undergraduate passage were materializing for me. Mainly it was
memorizing photosynthesis, paying rent, and avoiding parking tickets. One day, while
in the Student Union on an errand to drop one class and add another, the kind of
sub-intellectual task that seemed to constitute nine-tenths of my "higher education,"
I stumbled across a book by Milan Kundera called Life is Elsewhere. Hitting so thoroughly
home in that instant, the title seemed to lift off the cover; I took it as my summons—from
elsewhere no less.
A week after the semester's end, charged by the beyond to get out there and discover
my divine destiny, I moved to Paris (France, that is), hoping, I suppose, that I
would fall in a rabbit hole like Alice or—as was more likely given the setting—into
some deep existential angst that would culminate with me gaining (after who knew
how many dark nights of the soul) a new and life-changing insight into myself. And
to accomplish as much, I went to fairly absurd lengths. For instance, among other
make-shift exercises concocted on the cuff to effect enlightenment, I assigned myself
a koan. A koan is a seemingly nonsensical saying that a Buddha master will give
to a disciple who comes to him seeking enlightenment. What is the sound of one hand
clapping? for example. Or, how many lions are there in a single hair? The idea is
that wisdom runs deeper than logic and that by confounding all rational explanation,
a koan provokes one's conscious mind into yielding the floor so that one's deeper,
wiser mind can get a word in edge wise. Paris, I suppose, wasn't foreign enough
for me to find myself. I would have to make it all the way to the East, if only
in the confines of my little studio where I sat once a day on the thin carpet with
the lights out and meditated on my koan, which read as follows: Show me the face
you wore before your mother and father were born?
Ever heard of Old Timer's disease? That's what you get when the Lord decides you've
taken up too much time at the crick and He soaks your mind in a bucket of Blue-in
till everything in it-everything you ever were, every state and territory you ever
passed through, all the stories-come out, wiped from your memory. After that, let
me tell you something: you don't know diddley-squat about nothing. You'll be lucky
if you know your own wife. I understand they're looking for a cure for Old Timer's,
going to cure it like indigestion. I hope they do. If they don't, you ought to go
in the bucket-making business, because, boy, this country is going to need millions
Show me the face you wore before your mother and father were born. Six
months of sitting quietly in a candle-lit studio for forty-five minutes a day trying
to get my mind around how a person can even have a face before his mother or father
are born yielded no epiphanies. For a while I reasoned that the answer to my koan
hinged on reincarnation, an idea which my Southern Baptist upbringing strongly suggested
was sinfully superstitious. I spent many meditative hours trying to get over my
now instinctive resistance to that idea, finding unsuspected visual support, funny
enough, in a coffee stain.
I chose the discolored circle in my carpet as my meditative focal point because
I thought it would help me to relax imagining life as moving up and down as the
cross suggests, and to start picturing it as moving in a circle. As silly as my
daily ritual was, it brought little harm to anyone and it elevated (at least in
my own mind) the import of my stay in Paris. I was not another tourist buying into
the expatriate artist myth spawned in the 1920's and popularized by-among other
works on conspicuous display at Shakespeare and Company-Hemingway's Moveable Feast.
("If a writer is fortunate enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, wherever
he goes for the rest of his life, Paris will go with him, for Paris is a moveable
feast.") My pilgrimage was uniquely mine. I was an east Texan trying to let go of
the Texan part, a Baptist looking for the Bodhi tree. After several months I was
delighted to discover that if I narrowed my eyelids just so, I could get the candle
light flickering in my peripheral vision to move closer and closer in the direction
of the stain on my carpet, to the coffee mandala by which I was working out new
geometries with eternity.
My daddy was a prize fighter. He wore Florsheim shoes and drove an Asperson Jackrabbit.
He was half Indian, a Blackfoot. In 1926 the World Champion lightweight of the country
came to Hartshorne Oklahoma to train in the mountains. He wanted to build up his
strength by running the hills in a place where the sun shone all day. And my daddy
fought him in an exhibition fight that the governor of the state attended. All the
miners came out to pull for my daddy. They had a newspaper man there who asked my
daddy what it was like growing up in the rural south where there was so much racial
strife. My daddy couldn't read and he didn't know what the word "rural" or "strife"
meant. He figured, though, that the man was saying something about black people
and what it was like living with them. My daddy told the man, "Mister, the man I
came to knock out today is white. If a Negro jumps in the ring I'll worry about
Finally, after eight months of growing increasingly frustrated with the whole interiorized
proceedings, the answer surfaced: my grandparents. If my intent was to find myself,
I had come a long way in the wrong direction. I wasn't in Paris. I was in east Texas,
in the memories of the people in whose past my present was forged. Their history,
of which I knew next to nothing, was the face I wore before my mother and father
were born. Yes, I once again conceded, life is elsewhere. Three weeks later-which
is how long it took to book a flight of reasonable expense—I returned to Houston.
On the way to my parents' house from the airport, I asked to stop at Wal-Mart and,
culture shock notwithstanding, I purchased a tape recorder and three packs of six
90-minute cassettes. The next morning I called my Grandpa Leonard in Barber's Hill,
Texas. "How's the coffee, Old Timer?" I asked. "Good for your spondulicks," he said.
"How about I come see you," I suggested. Over the next two weeks my grandfather
and I drank a lot of coffee, I on the couch and he in his orange recliner. Between
us, next to a paper towel-stuffed Folgers coffee can, his spittoon, a tape recorder
I never shall forget (that's how my grandfather always began his stories)
the time I heard somebody holler "Dude"—that's what they called me back then,
Dude—and I came running around from the back of my grandparent's house where
I was playing soldiers with my granddaddy's sharecropper's son, Haywood Johnson,
and found my mother and father standing on the running-boards of two different cars
facing opposite directions. He had his leg up on an Aspersen Jackrabbit and she
had hers on a Dodge Touring Convertible. "Dude," my mother said, "your daddy and
I are going to get a divorce. I'm going to Texas and he's staying here in Oklahoma.
We've decided it is your choice who you live with." I thought about that for a second,
then I said to my mother, "If it's my choice, then I choose for you not to get a
divorce." "Now, Dude," my mother said, "there ain't no changing that. Your daddy
and I aren't living together anymore. But where you live and who you live with-that
part is up to you." Well about that time I looked up and saw my grandfather and
grandmother sitting on the porch, watching what was going on from their swing, and
it was like the Lord gave me my answer. "If I can't live with you both," I said
to my mother, "then my choice is to live here with my grandmother and grandfather."
That turned out to be the best decision I ever made in my life.
And that's how it went, story after story, tape after tape. I listened, and when
I thought I heard a thread that might lead my grandfather to a new set of memories,
a new trail of tales, I asked a question. I kept them simple, and for the most part
open-ended. "How did you meet grandma?" "What was my mama like when she was a little
girl?" "What was your first paying job?" When I began the project I feared the tape
recorder might distract my grandfather, freeze his tongue by putting him on the
spot. It didn't. He got good at pausing when he heard the recorder click at the
end of the tape. If he was saying something like, "We came up on the bridge" and
the tape ran out, he would pause and while I flipped the tape he'd contribute to
the spittoon. Then when I was ready, I would hit play, nod, and he would pick up
right where he left off: ". . . and we crossed it." No one knew at the time that
my grandfather had Alzheimer's. It is not a disease that hits you like a stroke
or a heart attack. It happens to you after it has already happened to you, like
growing up, but in the wrong direction. It started with names; it ended with faces.
The last face to go was his own. It is a fact about Alzheimer's that seldom gets
mentioned, maybe because when it happens so many other, more functionally relevant
debilities have assumed center stage, but one of the signature symptoms of having
advanced to the final stages of the disease is that one's face assumes a conspicuous
absence. The term plasticity is often used to describe the change. Another way of
expressing it might be: it gets harder and harder to tell if the person before you
is still there.
I took my grandfather's stories and wove them together into a novella that I entitled,
"Over and Under and Back from Whence You Came." That was the diddy my grandfather's
father used to teach him how to tie a tie: you take one end of the tie and go over
and under then back from whence you came. You do that twice and knot it. There was
a time in my grandfather's illness when he had enough memory to read his novella—or,
as he preferred, to have my grandmother read it to him—but not enough memory
to know how each story ended. He understood that they were about him because he
remembered that his name was Dude-he remembered that even after he forgot it was
Charlie. When you have Alzheimer's, life is elsewhere. The world behind you moves
forward, and the world around you disappears.
The last time I saw my grandfather I had come home from Wisconsin where I was working
at a college prep school. It had been over a year since he had given any indication
of recognizing anyone in the family but my grandmother. He was sitting in his orange
recliner. His eyes were bleary; his facial features collapsed into their skeletal
frame. He was wearing one of the jumpsuits that had served him as attire, in and
out of the oil fields where he worked for seventy-three years. Except now, tied
loosely around his neck, was a terrycloth bib. Alzheimer's is sometimes described
as an existential disease. People who have it, it is said, slowly lose their connection
to both the past and the future and live increasingly in the moment. Space, likewise,
loses all contiguity. Thus unmoored, an exile of the familiar and the recollected,
one's absence is finally all that feels present. When I arrived, my grandfather's
around-the-clock aide was trying to feed him a cracker. I sat beside him on the
couch; there was neither a spittoon nor a tape recorder between us now. "Hey, Old
Timer," I said, "how about I tell you a story."
Currently, four million people
in the United States are living with Alzheimer's. In the year 2020, if a cure is
not found, there will be twenty to twenty-four million people—in this country
alone—living with the disease. But the cure for Alzheimer's will not ultimately
be the cure for Alzheimer's. It is one thing to eradicate a disease; it is another
thing to create a community in which people can share themselves with other people,
and thus be whole. What finally makes Alzheimer's an existential disease is the
fact that it brings into such sharp relief the communicative dis-ease that marks
so much of our existence. We cannot remember where we came from and we haven't the
foggiest idea where we are going, but in the meanwhile we feel—and feel acutely—the
need to tell and to listen to stories about both. The night before my grandfather's
funeral, our family, from parts near and far, gathered together in his living room.
The talk, mostly small and expressed in a cheerfulness that could not disguise the
pall, was broken finally when my grandfather himself spoke up. My little brother
had found one of the tapes we had made years ago and brought his boom box in from
the car. "I never shall forget," my grandfather said. And as we listened to the
stories he told, you could see in the faces circling the room that he never would.