The Things I Swallow
As soon as I open the cap of the Super-B Complex bottle, the smell makes me nearly gag. I drink a cup of tea to wash the taste of the mustard-colored pill out of my mouth. The iridescent yellow it turns my pee is vaguely interesting. Everything else about it I detest. So why do I take vitamin B Complex? Because my cousin’s doctor told her it might help prevent Alzheimer’s.
I swallow over half-a-dozen supplements a day. Not all of them have to do with my fear of getting Alzheimer’s. Still, the largest and least palatable ones I take for that purpose. Capsules of powdered turmeric because my doctor told me initial studies have found it helpful—apparently the rate of Alzheimer’s in India is low. CoQ10 and amber Omega 3 gel caps because I read an article saying that as well as being good for your heart, somehow they also slow down Alzheimer’s as well. Basically if I think something might help, I swallow it.
I once heard of a controlled study of an Asian immigrant population in the U.S. whose low rate of Alzheimer’s seemed to be linked to drinking high pulp orange juice. The order went out in my household--high pulp o.j. only. As I drank my juice, I liked to imagine the slightly acidic fruit juice with its helpful pulp scrubbing away plaque build-up on my brain, the way toothpaste and mouthwash commercials show their products bubbling plaque off your teeth, but I’m not much of a juice drinker, so with relief my family went back to drinking their no pulp juice. I confess I’m not always consistent with my supplements either. Swallowing so many pills is unpleasant even if I count them into my mother’s ladylike china ashtray and space them out during the day. Eventually, it will take me two days to get through them all, then three, until for a few weeks I give them up all together. Then I’ll remember the sweetest of my mother’s sisters who also suffered from dementia calling her daughters “sluts” and trying to go outside naked or my mother insisting my father was trying to kill her, continually shredding tissues between her hands, or being just about to drink facial serum when my father stopped her. I’ll hear another news story or read a new article about the horrors of Alzheimer’s or the deterrent effect of this or that supplement, and my fears start me swallowing again. Maybe if I took fewer pills, it would be easier to be consistent. But which ones? Since none of them have been proven effective, how can I choose which to take and which to eliminate?
Regular exercise supposedly also keeps your mind sharp. That one’s easy because I actually like to exercise. It relaxes and invigorates me. But the most beneficial form of physical activity forces your body to learn new patterns thus forming new neurological pathways to the brain, like learning a new dance, for example, or perhaps karate or tai chi. Forget that. Although I’m an energetic and enthusiastic dancer, I’m completely uncoordinated and had trouble learning even the Macarena or the YMCA dance. And, who knows? Maybe learning the wrong steps creates muddled pathways further addling the aging brain. My favorite exercises require no equipment, no coordination, and absolutely no cooperation with other people. Just me and my body, that’s my motto.
I have friends who study ancient languages as a sort of prophylactic mental exercise, but ever since I learned of the demise of Dame Iris Murdoch, brilliant philosopher and novelist, from Alzheimer’s, I’ve been skeptical of that claim. Certainly my mother read the newspaper avidly, kept up with current events, followed the stock market. So I’ll engage in intellectual activities for their own sake, but I don’t hold out much hope for their memory enhancing properties.
But it’s a good thing I have a large circle of friends, since an active social life is also touted as lessening one’s chances of suffering from dementia. As a writer who also loves solitude, I sometimes fantasize about becoming a recluse but I’m too set in my ways to join a cloister. So what if I can’t remember the names of new acquaintances? If I stick to my peers, they won’t remember mine either, and our faulty memories will allow us to tell the same stories over and over without annoying one another.
What isn’t pleasant—my husband and I bickering: “But I told you I’d be away next weekend.” How can I remember his social calendar when I can barely remember my own? His family has no history of Alzheimer’s, so I imagine he’s completely confident in being correct; whereas, my mother’s side of the family is rife with Alzheimer’s. For that reason, during these kinds of arguments, no matter how I protest, secretly I’m convinced that he did tell me and I forgot. Or, when the disagreement goes the other way, he’s right again: I didn’t tell him; I just think I did.
When shared, such lapses can be comic. I remember my husband and I driving somewhere with a friend who taught film studies. Our conversation went something like this: “You know that movie starring—oh, I can’t remember his name but you know him—he was in what do you call it.” We all seemed to have lost our store of names and titles but because we were in it together we felt lighthearted if foolish. Similarly, my husband and I will watch a movie together on television, realizing, in the middle of it, that we know exactly what will happen because we’ve both seen it before. But the moment seems more threatening when my husband describes a movie we saw together—don’t you remember, it was in Arlington on a bitter cold night—and I have no recollection of the movie, the cold night, or sitting beside my husband sneaking my hand into his popcorn bag. In those instances, I feel as if a small crack has opened and I’m the only one slipping into it.
I’m going to call you “Grandma-Who-Forgets-Everything,” my grandson tells me when I ask him to find the reading glasses that I have, in fact, pushed on top of my head . The next time he comments, “For a teacher you forget a lot,” I’ve prepared my comeback. “Teachers,” I retort a bit smugly, “have a lot to remember, and you just forgot where you put your spiderman action figure.” He concedes, at least to the teacher part, and proceeds to tell me all the things his twenty-five year old first grade teacher forgets, but I understand how threatened I must feel to be reduced to arguing with a six year old.
I do try to forget or at least suppress one incident that terrified me, when in my office at the college where I teach, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t sort the essays I’d just photocopied into three piles: one to return to my students, one to keep for my files, the third to turn in to the administration for assessment purposes. I’d had to remove the staples from the originals to run them through the photocopier, and somehow they’d all gotten jumbled and now made no sense. It was as if pages that should follow one another were repelling each other with reverse magnetic force. Students had not put their names on, or necessarily numbered, every page, so I had to read the first and last paragraphs of separate pages to order them. The pages slid through my fingers. I kept trying but couldn’t reassemble them in the proper order. It was like straining spaghetti while on a hallucinogen. Although it was January, I was sweating. It was the closest I’ve ever come to a panic attack. My class started in three minutes, but I felt too frazzled to teach. I knew I should take a deep breath, put the papers down, laugh at myself and sort them later, but I couldn’t. I kept moving them from one pile to the next. Frightened and ashamed, I didn’t tell anyone about this incident. Could this be the beginning of my decline?
Still sharp at 94, my father lives independently, drives, and cooks all his own meal. Sometimes I cheer up and think, “I’ll be like him.”
“No, you won’t,” my daughter says bluntly shaking her head. “You’re just like Grandma.”
Copyright © 2016 Kathleen Aguero
Kathleen Aguero’s latest book of poetry is After That. She teaches in the low-residency M.F.A. in creative writing program at Pine Manor College and in Changing Lives through Literature, an alternative sentencing program. She also conducts creative writing for caregivers workshops privately and through adult and community education centers.
Photo by Phyllis Bretholtz