One on One
GEORGE'S DAUGHTER, Barbara, the one who pushed him into the group, is in town for a visit. She attends today's meeting to get to know her father's friends.
In a soft, husky voice, she recites a favorite poem, called "Broken Dreams."
- As children bring their broken toys
- With tears for us to mend,
- I brought my broken dreams to God,
- Because He was my friend.
- But then instead of leaving Him,
- In peace to work alone,
- I hung around and tried to help,
- With ways that were my own.
- At last, I snatched them back and cried,
- "How can you be so slow?"
- "My child," He said, "What could I do?
- "You never did let go."
Ed Thompson's face reddens. He is next in line to talk but can't get the words out. "I'm having a hard time," he whispers.
"Is there anything you want to talk about?" Whitaker asks.
"I'll see you later."
As everyone filters out of the meeting, Whitaker grabs a box of Kleenex and heads toward Ed.
He is 70, tall, soft of voice and not given to histrionics. As loss control manager for a huge Clearwater insurance brokerage, he tries to keep buildings and job sites safe.
Cheri Whitaker comforts Ed Thompson. He knows Catherine has Alzheimers but cant keep himself from wondering if it might be something else, something curable: What if its something I missed? I guess Im trying to hang onto a little thread.
At work, hours fly by without thoughts of Catherine. Work and support group are his outlets. Then George's daughter goes and recites poetry.
Whitaker eases into the chair next to Ed and waits. He takes deep breaths, struggling to begin.
"Yesterday was our 46th anniversary."
"So, 46 years ago, what were you doing?"
"Having fun. We went to Miami Beach on our honeymoon."
"Where did you stay?"
"The Waikiki Beach."
These pleasantries calm Ed. Yesterday, he bought Catherine flowers and an anniversary card. "I tried to make it a little special. But she didn't recognize what it meant."
"You were crying yesterday?"
"That's good. It's deserving. It's good to cry."
Ed cared for Catherine at home until her night wandering wore him down. He would wake to find the refrigerator emptied. "The butter was in the linen closet, milk in the bathroom, prunes in the living room."
He moved her to an assisted living facility, but the $3,000-a-month tab takes a huge chunk of his income. He's worried he can't keep up. "I see the point where I'm not going to be able to work much longer."
"I can't imagine you not working."
"No. That's what's keeping me alive."
"You know you gave her quality of care from Day 1," Whitaker says, stroking his cheek. "You never minced on money. You never complained about it. You sent her to one of the finest places in Pinellas County. So it's you we need to take care of. What are you doing for fun?"
He attended Easter services at Bok Tower. Crows and mockingbirds squawked from the trees as the sun rose. A choir sang. A black snake slithered in front of him.
"It was very impressive, very encouraging. I tried to tell her how we used to go there together. She couldn't comprehend what I was trying to say. It makes for a big empty spot."
Tears trickle down his cheek.
"I know religion means a lot to you. That beautiful poem by Barbara was sad. You are going to have a couple of bad weeks, but you are going to be okay, because you are a survivor."
Ever the gentleman, Ed thanks her for her time.
"Thank you," Whitaker says. "It's my therapy. I adore you, Ed."
"I'm glad somebody does."
"She does, too."
CHERI WHITAKER always harps on it: Never keep a demented person guessing.
Wrong: "Look, John, look who's here!"
Wrong: "Hi, Dad, do you remember me?"
Very wrong: "Who is this? What's his name?"
Cheri practices what she preaches when she visits her 82-year-old mother at Suncoast Manor nursing home.
"Hi, Mom. It's me, Cheri, your daughter. I'm here for a visit," she says, slipping a Snickers to a curly-headed sprite in a khaki jumpsuit.
Lolli Frazier's room brims with flowers, stuffed animals and drawings she made in art class. Her favorite blue rocker faces a collage of family photos that dominates one wall.
Cheri shuffles through her mother's dresser drawers.
"What are you doing?" Lolli asks.
"Looking for a brush," Cheri lies.
Like many demented people, Lolli is a pack rat. She collects leaves and paper and stuffs them into her jumpsuit. When her pockets overflow, the dresser is her final repository. Lolli deposits, Cheri withdraws.
The support group is the best part of Cheri's life. She leads them in old-time songs and group screams. They get mushy and tell her she has preserved their sanity. But few are aware how much they nourish Cheri in return.
Behind her raucous laugh, dangling earrings and super slim Capri Ultra Lights, behind her veneer of self-assurance, the doctor is a patient.
Cheri needs the same connection they do, because she is losing a mother.
"This disease is a killer," she says, slumped in a lawn chair outside the home, having a smoke. "You watch a vibrant, intelligent person disappear before your eyes. I miss her so badly. You want someone you can verbalize with, to cry on her shoulder.
"That person is gone. The day I hate most is Mother's Day. My mother is gone."
Ambiguity surrounded Cheri from the beginning. Right after she was born, her father took her 2-year-old sister and moved to West Virginia, leaving Cheri and her mother in Washington, D.C. Cheri didn't see her father for two years.
His mother doted on the older sister but treated Lolli and Cheri like snakes. On her deathbed, the grandmother offered only one word when Cheri arrived: "Ugh."
Cheri thinks another man might have fathered her, maybe an African-American. Everyone in her family is fair. Cheri is black-haired and nut brown. In high school, a segregated theater turned her away.
"I didn't think I was white. I knew I was different."
Cheri's own marriage spanned two children, degrees in sociology and psychology, a career with Eastern Airlines and a divorce. When she moved to St. Petersburg 12 years ago, her father was long dead, her mother too demented to live alone.
"I thought it was only going to be a year or two," says Cheri, who is 57 now. "I didn't see it as a sacrifice."
Lolli lasted longer than her daughter's health: Cheri developed panic attacks and heart problems. Her doctor warned that Cheri would collapse if she kept caring for her mother at home.
So Cheri put Lolli in Suncoast Manor and took a job at the Alzheimer's Association, fielding calls from frantic children and spouses. The support group gives Cheri attachment. When her friends heal, she does too.
In the last year, she has grown frustrated with her pay and her life. The medicine she takes makes her feel fat and lousy. She's lonely. She misses her kids and grandkids.
Visits to the smiling woman in the nursing home offer no help, only emptiness.
GEORGE YELLED at Lucille in the Kmart parking lot last week.
"I was trying to get her in the car and she wouldn't put her foot in," he tells the group. "A man came by and said, "What's the trouble?'
"I told him my wife has Alzheimer's and he said, "Well, you aren't being very nice to her.' I said, "Listen, fella, I take care of her 36 hours a day.' And he said, "Well, you aren't being nice.'
"I threw her foot in the car and off we went."
Whitaker reassures him: "If you are good 75 percent of the time, that's better than most."
George glances at his friends. "If somebody at this table says they are good 100 percent of the time, they're a damn liar."