Saturday was my birthday and I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful autumn day – blue sky, crisp air, and plenty of sunshine. A perfect day for a walk – actually a two-mile walk for Alzheimer’s Research in memory of my friend, Pat FitzGerald.
Pat was a ‘pew partner’ in our church. You know how we all find ‘our’ pew and tend to stay there for years after? We met Pat and her hubby Fitz when we first arrived at our new church and slid into ‘their’ pew. We became fast friends and they invited me to join the weekly study and discussion group.
Pat was also a journalist and writer so I invited her to join a local writers’ organization I belonged to, South Carolina Writers’ Association. From her time with our group and her classes at Winthrop University she wrote a moving and globe-trotting family memoir. This is a picture of Pat, our friend Claire, and me at a writers’ conference in 2012 in Myrtle Beach. Pat is the one on the right with the big smile and artsy jewelry. That was our Pat. Always.
By the time her book was published, Pat was tripping over and forgetting her words and stories. Fitz moved the two of them to a pew further toward the back of the church so she wouldn’t be so distracted. Eventually she was unable to attend at all and Fitz rejoined us.
It’s been almost a year since Pat’s death from Alzheimer’s. The toll it took on Fitz is finally dissipating, a bit. So Saturday we joined him, his family, and a thousand other walkers to remember and support. But not only for Pat.
In the past several years other friends, and other family members of friends, have also been diagnosed or have passed away from Alzheimer’s. So for Susan, for Joy’s mom, for Dottie, for Joanne’s aunt, for Ed . . . and so many others, we walked. November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. May we one day see white flowers in this garden of color.
This is a poem I wrote for Pat several years ago. The third section was published in The Petigru Review.
My wife and I walked the streets
of Viet Nam, Spain, Russia,
Tahiti, Ireland and France
learned enough of the languages
to find our way. We told the stories
of our adventures in tandem
finishing each others’ sentences
laughing before the punch-line.
Today we walk and she stumbles
over potholes of memory. I hold
her elbow, guide her as she rights
herself. Our adventures confined
to between covers of books. We read
each other the stories, first alternating
the chapters, now the pages.
Our feeble practice of keeping her
from losing her words.
My friend held us in the teacup palm of a hand
with her whimsical, crystal-clear descriptions
of shopping in England’s trendy boutiques
rolling and shaping clay Bella Rosa wreaths in Italy
watching Vietnamese women stitch intricate handwork
picking vanilla beans and listening to ukulele strings
in Tahiti. Her flawless French, not her native language,
spun off her tongue, exotic as the fabrics she wore.
She is Chihuly’s The Sun.
Body and soul of spiraled-glass flames
in vibrant oranges and yellows radiating, reaching. Fired
in curiosity her daily mantra,
Oh that sounds interesting! Tell me more about that!
an invitation to fuel her zest for life.
She laughed with us
when words at the tip of her tongue
refused to leap, when she guided us
around the cracks in her stories.
Her fragility undeniable, her mantra rang hollow
when I mentioned Adult Sunday School. She forgot
I was there at her invitation.
Now she speaks in broken phrases
shards of a narrative she believes is whole
we gather the mosaic of mis-matched patterns
that don’t align and we are left wanting
as our friend thins to ceramic cream.
I tie my future to Mother’s image
Rita, my Tahitian pearl. A gardenia
always tucked behind her ear, she learned to hula
when she was seventy, danced her story
til she turned ninety. We sailed the South Sea,
flew the European continent collecting
and stringing ancestors like pearly shell necklaces.
Each fearless sea captain grandfather, ribald
ukulele-plucking uncle and exotic story-telling auntie
bequeathed me an old age lush and solid
as island mountains.
How can genetics lie?
At seventy-two I fear the loss of names, faces
of the living. Whisper, choke
on the name of my disease. Ghosts and burial plots
prove easier to find than words hidden
within my sentences. A friend assures
she won’t forget me when I forget her.
It’s damn little consolation.
A paper grants my husband legal guardianship
and my inner screaming has no voice. He restricts
my driving. My navigable world limited to church,
the Y and Earth Fare. We’re moving to condos
where Rita happily spent her final years
but I’m not helping sort, save and pitch.
If I must lose the memories why must I also let go
of my writing, our artwork and the souvenirs
that hold them?
In class I lengthen the cord from present to past.
a favorite song,
a job once held,
a childhood game
a knot to grasp. My husband helps me cling to words
and their meanings while we read together
take turns with each turn of the page.
I love our new home, so many mementos
of a rich and exciting life. A new addition,
the condo newsletter with an article
about me and Mother.
Everyone here loved Rita.
Though your beautiful tribute to Pat brought tears streaming down my face – it also has me grinning wide at how lucky I was to know her, and to have her as a friend. And you – to remember, and share her with us, on your birthday – so special of you! And lastly, to share in the photo on your blog – thank you! Haha – I was looking at it just the other day! Again! LOL
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, dear friend – and HAPPY HEAVEN, Pat!!!