Walking with the Homeless. (Or, Assaulted By Pickles)

On Saturday morning I took part in one of the many Memory Walks organized by the Alzheimer’s Association. Each year several hundred people gather to walk in memory of those who have died or are suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I’ve already written about my grandmother who has the disease, so I won’t go back into that. Instead, I’d like to talk about the walk itself.

The walk my family and I took part in is a three mile hike through the streets of Rockford, Illinois. That’s right, Rockford, Illinois. Birthplace of not only yours truly, but also the home to Rock ‘n’ Roll legends, Cheap Trick.

Before the walk begins, everyone gathers in a park situated on the banks of the Rock River. Directly across from the gathering park stands a giant house. There are several houses there, actually, but one large one inparticular stands out because on the grassy sloped embankment, the name “Karen” is spelled out with rocks. This has been there for the four years we’ve been taking part in the walk and it’s been the source of much debate. Okay, so no one’s actually debated it but in my head I wonder about it. I wonder if it’s the name of the person who lives in that house. Or could it be the long lost love of the owner of the house. And if the owner is married to someone else, perhaps named Lola or Samantha or Phyllis, is she jealous of this faceless Karen to whom a beckoning has been sent.

Or perhaps Karen is the name of a dead pet. A cockatoo, maybe? Or could it be that this person was just a tremendous fan of the Carpenters, and still mourns for the loss of Karen Carpenter. Or perhaps it was there when the current owner bought the house. It’s possible I will never know the answer to this question.

Anyway, as we’re all milling about waiting for the walk to begin, there are some announcements made by local Rockford celebrities. Namely, people from the local news. They thank us for taking part in such a great event and remind us of what a great thing we’re doing. Then they encourage us to stretch before beginning the walk. What they really need is a bloody mary bar. Because a little hair-of-the-dog might’ve been a pretty good thing for this walker that day.

Nonetheless, people stretched led by the mascot of the Rockford Lightning, Freddie Flash. Freddie appears to be some sort of raccoon/panther/frog type mix. Perhaps he’s the result of what would happen if you put a bunch of forest creatures in a box and the box were hit by lightning.

Assisting Freddie Flash in the pre-walk stretching was Pickles the Clown. My Uncle Jimmy pointed out that he knew Pickles when she was just a Cucumber. I’ve never been one of those people who gets freaked out by clowns, but do you ever have the feeling that there are certain clowns who don’t take off the make-up? They just sit around the house in their clown outfit. Well I can see Pickles being one of those kind of clowns. You might run into Pickles in the laundry room of your apartment complex. “Here you go, I’m done with this dryer. Lemme just grab my big frilly neck thingy here. Okay. All yours.” Natrually she’d have a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, too.

The stretching is finished and we’re ready to embark. The walk itself is relatively uneventful. You just walk. We’re led by a trio of bagpipers who take us the first 50 feet of the journey. Pickles is there assaulting everyone with stickers. (This year’s sticker was of a smiley face. Last year she gave out stickers that said “I met a clown today.” I liked last year’s stickers better. It was amazing how often that thing came in handy. Every time I’d have a conversation with someone I didn’t care for, I’d slap that baby right on my shirt after parting company. There are clowns all around us, my friends, most just don’t wear the make-up.)

The walk begins down a stretch of road flanked by industrial businesses and such. We passed a bar called Mary’s, I believe, but regrettably, that was closed. As we wind around the town we cross a bridge over the Rock River and end up through a little riverfront pathway. The walk begins around 9:30 am on a Saturday, so the homeless guys who use this portion of the park as their sleeping quarters are still on their benches. This year a couple of them were just waking up to face their day as we passed them. They slapped my Uncle Bob and my dad a high five. Thankfully I was on the opposite side of the path and out of reach of their encouraging gestures. (Understand that we’re not sure where their hands had been all night. I mean it probably got a little cold and they had to keep them warm somehow.)

After the walk turns away from the river we head through what I believe to be downtown Rockrford. On a Saturday morning this part of town is about as active as the Kelsey Grammer fan club. There are very few people out.

We cruised the final mile of the walk back over the upper portion of the bridge we crossed the first time and down and around to the spot we started in the first place. The throngs of waiting admirers must have been given the wrong date and time, because the only people waiting for us were the same people who were there in the first place.

Pickles was no where to be seen. It’s my guess that she either had an afternoon birthday party to attend to or she had some vacuuming to do around the apartment.

But as a family we raised close to $2,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association. Not too shabby. I’m not sure what the total take for the event was, but it had to be over ten grand. So it was certainly a successful event.

As I said, this is the fourth year we’ve done this as a family and despite the fact that I like to make fun of it a little bit, it really is a great event and one which I do enjoy taking part in. If I’m going to have to hang out with all my Aunts and Uncles and cousins for a full day like that, at least I can take solace in the fact that we’re raising money for a good cause. Before I wrap this up though, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that my cousin Cathy, who is a regular medal winner in the Special Olympics, finished the walk this year in record time. Naturally, we’re all particularly proud of her.

Once again, if you’d like to make a donation to the Alzheimer’s Association, you can call 1.800.272.3900. Or, to make a donation by mail, send a check to Alzheimer’s Association, 225 N. Michigan Ave., Fl. 17, Chicago, Ill. 60601-7633

Forget me not.

A couple of Thanksgiving’s ago, my parents hosted my dad’s family for dinner. My grandmother on that side of the family suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. If I’m not mistaken, she’s had it for close to five years now. I don’t remember exactly when she was first diagnosed. It actually might be even longer than that.

Regardless, as time passes, she deteriorates. It’s horrible. So sad. I don’t handle these sort of things well, so I always feel tremendously awkward when around her. I want to talk to her, but she doesn’t know who I am anymore. She does, however, know that I’m tall.

Actually, this is sort of weird, but ever since the day I showed up to my grandmother’s house and was taller than her, not a visit went by where she didn’t talk about how tall I am. Literally every single visit, “Hoo, my. Michael, you just keep growing.” “I can’t get over how tall you are.” “Goodness. What happened to little Michael?” The thing is, I’ve been the same height now since I was about 17 years old, but this wouldn’t stop her from gasping at the sight of me well into my twenties.

I tried to come up with new things to say to her in an attempt to explain my lanky physique, but there’s only so much you can do. But the funny thing is that even now, though she doesn’t seem to know who I am, she does have that look of recognition in her eyes because of my height. She’ll look up and sort of smile shyly and look away as she mumbles something like, “boy…tall…whoo.”

For the record, I’m only 6’3″. That’s really not that tall. But I guess it did make me the tallest on that side of the family.

Anyway, getting back to that Thanksgiving a couple/few years ago. We were all sitting around the living room and my grandmother was in there. A few of us were eating dinner there as the dining room table was full. But I’d notice my grandmother staring at me. So I’d smile at her and look away to engage someone in conversation or watch TV. Then I’d look back at her and she’d be sort of staring at me again. So I’d smile.

This sort of went on for awhile through out the afternoon/evening. I didn’t think anything of it. Until, that is, much later when she and my grandfather were on their way out. My grandfather was leading her by the hand and he’d stopped to say goodbye to someone. My proximity to them was such that my grandmother was now standing directly to my right as I sat on the sofa. She looked down at me, almost umcomfortably and with what seemed like disapproval.

“I’ve seen you watching me today,” she said in a half whisper. “But you should know that this is my husband.”

It took a moment for my brain to register the assumption that my grandmother’s corroded mind had made.

“Grandma!” I said. “I know who that is.”

But that’s all I could say. She looked away from me, then back at me, almost as if giving me a warning. I smiled at her again. Then they left.

It took a little while before I could confess to my dad that his mother had basically accused me of hitting on her. Just the mere thought of it was disturbing on several levels. First and foremost: that’s just gross. But secondly, it was an indication of just how sick she is.

But there’s little that one can do when a family member is faced with this condition. You can only try to make them comfortable really. As they sort of regress to a more childlike state of mind, you can’t help but be amused by them in the same way we’re amused by young children who are learning and discovering things for the first time.

Anyway, in a few weeks my family and I will be participating in one of the many annual Alheimer’s Memory Walks. This is an event meant to serve as a means to raise money for research to find out more about Alzheimer’s.

I know many of us have been donating to relief funds supporting those who have lost everything to Katrina, so it’s hard to even consider asking for support for something else, but here I am. I guess I’d like to get this thing figured out. So, I’ll just post the Alzheimer’s Association address and if you think you might be capable of helping out, please, please do. And feel free to make your donations in the name of Fran Fertig, my grandmother.

If I happen to know you, and you’d like to help out, feel free to give me your checks personally. Make them out to the Alzheimer’s Association. The Memory Walk takes place on the 24th of September, so there’s time. And I’ll put your donation with the others I’ve already received.

Otherwise, to make a donation by phone, please call 1.800.272.3900. To make a donation by mail, send a check to Alzheimer’s Association, 225 N. Michigan Ave., Fl. 17, Chicago, Ill. 60601-7633.

There are a lot of things I don’t want to forget when I’m older, so help out if you can.