brothers, part 24

Halloween is the saddest holiday.

Rick and I had a tradition. Every Halloween, we would sing a song. OK, it was usually May or July or whenever I finally made it down for Christmas or Thanksgiving or some random weekend. But still. Tradition.

It was a Halloween song from our childhood, one that lingered like candy corn in the bottom of the bag. For some reason, I could only remember the chorus.

“Halloween’s the night to dress up like a sight to give your friends a fright LOOK OUT it’s Halloween!” But I had no idea how the verse went.

And that’s where Rick came in. He had an encyclopedic memory, if encyclopedic is a word, and it might be. At least through the H’s, which luckily is where Halloween landed. He would sing the verse in that silly Rick sing-song tone. Then I would sing the chorus. And we would both sing the end:  LOOK OUT LOOK OUT it’s Halloween. We would swap look outs back and forth and laugh ourselves silly. We were always silly.

That went on for 70 years ago, which is a bit of a miracle given that he’s only 65. Journalists’ lives are measured in dog years. But it was my favorite holiday.

And now it’s the saddest. I might have mentioned that.

They give you a lot of information when you pick up the dementia handbook. How he’ll start to change. Things will disappear. He’ll lose the ability to cheat at Scrabble and totally punk you at crocinole. What they DON’T tell you is that you’ll lose the Halloween song forever. Probably because it’s just too damn painful to know.

I won’t see him at Halloween this year. But when I do next month, I’ll break out the song. Who knows? Maybe that will be the one thing he remembers. Christmas miracles happen. I saw it in a Hallmark movie.

And if not, that’s OK. We still have the disembodied Little Ricky ventriloquist dummy head. Some Halloween traditions never end. Unless June sent Little Ricky to the farm in Ballinger.

If so, it will be the saddest holiday.

LOOK OUT! It’s Halloween.

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brothers, part 23

“I’m glad you’re here!”

I was caught off guard as i walked back into the house after phoning Mo from the porch. He had been eating breakfast, saw me through the window, and came walking around to the door.

I’m glad I’m here, too, I replied.

it’s the end of another week of hanging out with my brother. We finished off the ice cream by the second day. We’ve walked our loop enough times that we could do it with our eyes shut. Which explains how I led him into heavy traffic this afternoon. F-150s are big up close. We only set the kitchen on fire once, and made it the entire week with almost no dogs lost. What more could you ask for?

Brother the younger and his lovely bride are here, ready to help us out when the wheels fall off. June, of course, is 24-7, and Mo is just a 911 call away. We make a good team.

It’s funny. Rick doesn’t say much these days. I’ve been reading dementia books nonstop trying to figure things out. The most optimistic solution I’ve found is that it’s just a different reality. Carlos Castaneda and Haruki Murakami wrote of different planes that we can’t see. Maybe that’s what this is all about. I can hope.

And then there are those moments of clarity. We’re driving through the neighborhood and we come across an old decrepit house with an overgrown lawn. “That house is scary,” he says. Indeed.

And he’s sitting in his chair when June walks in. He jumps up, hugs her and says “I love you.” My heart melts.

June told me a while ago that there is joy amid the sadness. Maybe I’m starting to understand. Rick and I had never spent enough time together, the result of busy lives and too much distance and the “there will be time for that later” syndrome. Now, I see him all the time. That same smile, an occasional twinkle, still taking the last of the Hershey bars.

While out on our evening walk, we were greeted by the president of the Smith Boys Walking Club. We talked for a minute in the middle of the road (did i mention that this wasn’t our safest hike?) As we were saying goodbye, she said “you’re lucky to have him as a brother.” In unison, we replied, “yes, I am.”

We still have a bunch of Sonic milkshakes down the road. Maybe next time he won’t drink mine. And if he does, that’s OK. No, dammit, it’s not. Stay away from my shake. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Where do we go from here? I’m not really sure. Probably Sonic. The best adventures are the ones where you don’t know how they will end.

“I’m glad you’re here.” I will cling to those four words forever.

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things i wish i had said, part 82

“Please understand, I’m still in here.”

— Richard Taylor, dementia advocate

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the day i lost lucky forever. a photo essay

Being a vegetarian is hard on animals.

I’ve been trying not to eat them lately. This led to June putting on a pot of beans before leaving for school. What could go wrong?

Rick and I went for our morning walk and then plopped into the living room, which began to fill with smoke. I assumed this was some special effect to go along with the music we were listening to, but I peeked in the kitchen just in case. As it turns out, the beans were on fire.

I am not much of a cook, so I called Mo, who assured me this was not a good thing. I turned the burner off. And then things got worse.

The smoke alarm goes off. It’s not one of those soothing 2001 space odyssey hal what are you doing sounds. It’s a high screeching shriek, like the one made by a smoke alarm.

The dogs go insane. The kitchen is filled with smoke and the stench of burned beans. Rick jams his fingers in his ears. I open the doors to let the smoke out. I set the pot on the porch. I track down the smoke alarm and having no access to a sledge hammer, I take it outside. Crisis averted.

And then things get worse.

As the smog lifts, I do a head count of doggos and people. Belle’s here. Edie’s here. Rick has unplugged his ears. I think I’m here although I can’t see myself.

But Lucky is missing.

Lucky is a dog who Kate and June became attached to when they saw him neglected and chained to a fence. They gave the owner a hundred bucks and a burrito, and he’s been a beloved family member since. He’s very skittish though, I suppose the fallout of being neglected so long. The smoke alarm had sent him into a panic, with only a poorly closed screen door to stop his escape.

I look through the house. I check the yard. i quiz the other two dogs, who are bound to a doggo code of silence. I look again and again, peering down the street. Nothing. I make the dreaded phone call.

Hi, June. How are you? Fine, thanks. Oh, and I lost Lucky.

Minutes later, she is home. She tries the “shake the dog treats bag” trick. Nothing. She and Rick go out on foot. I drive block by block by block, annoying the pickups unimpressed with my 10 mph pace. (sub 2 marathon!)

June calls and says to come home. He knows he has a good thing, she says. He’ll come home.

But I can’t shake the vision of little Kate’s 6-year-old eyes (i’m not sure exactly how old she is now) when I have to tell her I set her dog on fire.

I drive for weeks, or maybe hours, or at least till June returns with takeout from Rosa’s. It’s crazy. He’s nowhere in the neighborhood. Vanished.

And then it gets better.

June calls. She found Lucky hiding in her bedroom closet. Which is an amazing coincidence, because that is where I had planned to hide when Kate found out.

I pull up and there he is, looking out the gate like nothing happened.

I eat my tostada and share a little, because. Success is survival, the prophet Michael Murphy said. Indeed.

The moral: Just order takeout. Being a vegetarian is hard on animals.

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brothers, part 22

we go to sonic for milkshakes. i ask if he wants vanilla or chocolate. he isn’t sure, so i order one of each.

we stop at the park and sit on our bench. ducks are staging a parade for our benefit. there’s a pause in the rain, but i manage to sit in the last of the puddles.

i hand him the vanilla shake and ask him to try it first. with one extended inhalation, he downs two thirds of it and shrugs.

so i hand him the chocolate one and he repeats the process, downing almost all of it in one long gulp.

he pauses. this one, he says, and then finishes off what’s left.

i stare down into the bottom of the vanilla cup and suck up the dregs.

upside: he left me the cherry.

downside: i hate cherries.

once a big brother, always a big brother.

best shakes ever.

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brothers, part 21

He’s pacing around nervously. I don’t know what to do. So we go for a walk.

But the magic is gone. He stays six paces behind me, wary of the stranger leading him to an uncertain future.

We make the usual left turn and head for the lily ponds. But when we’re a block away, he stops.

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” he says softly. I have no idea what he’s thinking. “I know it’s stupid, but …” he says, and his voice trails off as he fixes his stare on the asphalt.

I assure him it’s no problem. We walk home, and his pace quickens as he sees the white and red refuge.

We sit on the porch and overfeed the cat, who serves as a buffer between us. He studies me occasionally, unsure. I give my autopilot speech. I’m your favorite brother Gary. I’ve known you since you were 2 years old. We’re friends. You’re safe.

But he’s not buying it. He wanders through the house, keeping a safe distance from the weird guy. We listen to john prine. “hello, in there. hello,” he sings. The chorus echoes in my head.

You learn a lot from running. You have good runs and bad runs. When the wheels fall off, you suck it up and wait for the next day. Pull on the trusty hokas, turn the cap backwards and try again.

This race isn’t over.

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brothers, part 20

We’re listening to Lisa Bastoni on a chilly October morning. The dogs, in the next room, may or may not be creating mischief. We’re on the honor system here, and there is no honor among doggos.

I’m flopped on the couch reading a book written by a runner whose daughter has Asperger’s. How does one fit in when things are different?

Funny. I don’t think Rick and I ever fit in. He, an introverted poet. I, a crazy homeless guy held back from his true potential by having a home.

It’s not so bad, the author Sophie Walker learns of life with her daughter. It’s just different. There’s a time to let it go, Bastoni sings.

There is still joy, June told me. I didn’t understand then, but maybe I do now. A quiet contentment on a dreary day.

We eat pie. We watch the rain. We agree our feet are cold. I know what it must have been like for the old guys at the Vancourt store, sitting by the store and drinking Dr Pepper with peanuts, watching the world.

Life isn’t fair. Nobody said it would be. Still, it’s our life. It’s all right to cry when you need to cry, Bastoni says. But I don’t think I need to.

So much to say that he’ll never hear. That’s OK. We’re here.

Saying I love you isn’t even close to what I feel, Lisa sings.

We go out for a walk and get caught in a downpour. A few puddles later, we’re kids again.

We make it back home, and Lisa Bastoni is singing about the doggos of New Orleans. Rick goes in the other room. He may or not be creating mischief. We’re on the honor system, and there is no honor among desperados.

The album plays on. Eventually, it will end end. I love listening to it while I can.

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