Monday, February 28, 2005

It’s Still Ticking (Epilogue)

The Morning After
Tuesday morning seemed different. The stressful uncertainty of the previous twenty-four hours, which hung over me like a cloud, was replaced by a crisp, stark reality, having burned a hole in my mind’s eye, through which I could now see much more clearly.

As the loud ringing of the telephone wake-up call smashed the early-morning silence, I awoke in the darkness with a start. For a brief moment I didn’t know where I was, but quickly remembered. As much as I wanted it all to be a bad dream, that grim reality of the previous day washed over me as I sat up to see my little brother still sound asleep just a few feet away.

I was completely awake; my thoughts were already off and running; racing. What was going on inside his head? Was he dreaming? Did he still remember his dreams? I paused for about a minute, pondering how Alex’s life had now forever changed, as had mine. But to what end? What role would I play over the next several years, or however much time my brother had before his pursuer finally catches up and overtakes him? It was not a great way to start my day, and unfortunately it would only get worse.

I went into the bathroom and started the small two-cup coffeemaker that was provided by the hotel, and then hit the shower. I soon heard sounds of Alex stirring.
“Mornin’ bro-mine,” the familiar voice called out through the steam.
“I think the coffee’s done,” I replied. “Are you starting to get packed?”
“Yep," Alex answered. Is Jack still coming?”

“Yes he is,” I replied, “He’s picking us up at 8:45. We’re gonna go out for breakfast, then he’ll drop us off at the airport.”

I honestly can’t say how long it had been since Alex had seen our eldest brother. Being considerably closer to him geographically, I’ve seen Jack a lot more often than I’ve seen Alex over the past 10-12 years. I could be mistaken, but I believe they hadn’t seen each other since our last most recent gathering as a whole family, in Indiana back in the Summer of 1993, when we all came together to celebrate my Dad’s 70th birthday.

When I finished in the bathroom, Alex took his turn and I packed quickly in order to help him gather all his things together. I knew that the likelihood was great that unassisted, he’d have some troubles. But all things considered, he did a pretty good job by himself. I did need to help him sort a few things to get everything back into his suitcase. But before too long we were ready to check out.

Minutes later while we waited in front of the hotel for Jack, I talked to Alex about his misadventure from the night before.
“Does any of this look familiar?” I asked him. “Do you remember which way you went last night when you went for your ‘walk?’”
“Nope," he replied with resignation. “None of this looks familiar.”
“Oh well,” I said, “Don’t worry about it. All’s well that ends well in this case.”

Alex smiled and nodded.

A few minutes later up drove Jack in his red minivan. He pulled over, parked and got out, to be met by Alex’s waiting embrace. Jack seemed unfazed by Alex’s condition, but then again this wasn’t his first rodeo with someone noticeably affected by the family curse. He had a ringside seat to see the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, not only with our mother, but even more so with David, our brother who was two years his junior. It was Jack who first convinced David’s wife Cindy to take him to IU Medical Center to be checked out by the staff who had been following our family since the mid-1960s. David was only 36 years old at the time Jack noticed changes in him; he was well aware of what the signs were. That’s why even against my insistence that "everything was okay" last July, 2004 — that it was the sleep apnea that was the culprit in Alex’s sudden demise — Jack knew better. He hadn’t even seen him, but all it took was talking to Alex over the phone, and he knew.

Jack has never been what I would consider a charismatic sort — unless he’s angry — and fortunately, that’s not a state I’ve seen him in very often in the 38 years we’ve shared family ties. His personality is friendly, but serious. His is certainly the life among our Mother’s five children that was the most greatly disrupted by her illness. At age 19 when she was diagnosed, Jack took nearly ten years to get his life back on track. He resisted marriage because he was convinced that it would be he whom fate would decide to follow in the line of our familial tragedy. Although it took him ten years longer than any of the rest of us, he overcame the trauma in the same way we all did, and married the same year as Myself and Alex, in 1979. Now with a loyal and loving wife and three grown daughters, how ironic it must be for him to know that he will most likely out-live Alex, his baby brother by thirteen and a half years.

Because of his guarded emotional persona, I’ve never been able to “read” Jack. But it wasn’t hard to see the sadness in his eyes that morning.

We stopped at a Bob Evans restaurant that was at about the halfway point between the hotel and Indianapolis International Airport. We all had pancakes. The conversation wasn’t terribly deep; it was poignant in some spots yet lively in others. We talked about favorite uncles and cousins. We talked about the medication that Alex would now be availed of and the hopes that it would somehow help him to live a more normal existence for a greater length of time. It must have been surreal for Alex to address the topic, but he did so in a sober and relatively matter-of-fact manner, yet didn’t appear to be depressed. He was more upbeat than either Jack or me.

He was everything I would hope that I would be if the tables were turned. It was all good.

Three amigos in Indy. Left to right: AJ, Jack and Alex

We arrived at the airport, Jack dropped us off at ticketing while he went to park the car and rejoin us up until it was boarding time. The lines were nearly non-existent so we had about ten minutes to wait for Jack to show up. Our flight wouldn’t be boarding for about another hour.

We were there, standing near a colonnade in the terminal, when I looked up to see a familiar face about 25 feet way, walking in our direction.
“Hey, that’s Ed Werder of ESPN,” I said instinctively. I wonder if he’s on our flight?”
“I think you’re right!” Alex exclaimed, looking over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of the tall, lanky NFL reporter for ABS Sports and ESPN. Werder was in town because he’s the primary "locker room correspondent" for Monday Night Football. He routinely reports on the respective team’s injuries or notes of interest in the MNF pre-game show and then afterwards will do a synopsis report of the game for ESPN’s SportCenter. We had seen Werder on TV the night before reporting from the RCA Dome, where the Colts and Vikings had done battle on ABC’s Monday Night Football. You have to be somewhat of an ESPN nerd to know much about the guy, but since I definitely am, I also knew that Werder lives in Dallas, and is a local TV Sports reporter who covers the Dallas Cowboys.

Something else you need to know about me, is that while I may not be the most unabashed person in social interaction, but when it comes to chance meetings with celebrities, I have no shame — I’m gonna say something, every time. I’ve had the opportunity to rub elbows with celebs on numerous occasions via my career in the music biz, and living here in Nashville, I see ‘em on the street fairly commonly. I don’t freak out, mind you, and I never raise my voice. But I can also tell you, I’ve never been ignored or met with anything but an appreciative smile.

“Great game last night, Ed. Nice job,” I said as Werder approached us. His eyes lit up with genuine enthusiasm.
“Oh thanks! Did you guys come down for the game?” he said, stopping then reaching out to shake my hand.
“No, we were here on personal business, I replied, but we watched it on TV. What a barn-burner, huh?”

We introduced ourselves, and he wished us good luck and continued on his way. It wasn’t something that I’ll likely want to brag to the grandkids about, but it was kinda cool.

Ed Werder of ESPN and ABC’s Monday Night Football was kind enough to grant me a photo opportunity

A few minutes later Jack appeared and we proceeded to the area near our gate’s security area. There was a Starbuck’s just adjacent to it, so we went in for a cup. The things that needed to be said were pretty much said at that point, so for the next 30 minutes the three of us sat silently reading parts of a newspaper a previous customer had left behind.

When the time came for us to make our way down through security, there were no tearful good-byes — that’s just not Jack’s style. We exchanged man-hugs all around and that was that.

Last Leg
The trip home was fairly uneventful, aside from the fact that again Alex left his suitcase, some twenty yards behind us in the security line and raised a commotion when he suddenly bolted back to retrieve it. But after my discreet explanation of his condition, they allowed us to move on.

We landed in Dallas and took a cab to drop Alex back at his house, which is only a short fifteen-minute ride from the airport. Alex was so relieved to get back to familiar environs. His dog Abby was beside herself with excitement as she greeted us at the door; Alex appeared to be every bit as much himself.

The cabbie was waiting to take me back to the airport, so once I was sure he and his things were safely inside, I hugged my little brother. It was time to go.
“AJ, I love you so much,” he said as tears began to well up in his eyes. “Thanks for doing this for me.
“I looked him in the eyes and reiterated what I had said to him at the outset of our short, strange journey together. “I believe with all my heart, that these last three days, as much as anything I have ever done in my life, were what I was placed on this earth to do. There is no way I could, or would want to do anything else.”
I hugged his neck hard and kissed him, then walked back outside to the waiting taxi.

Reality..what a (lousy) concept
Back at DFW Airport I had a two-hour layover before my flight home. It was about the most miserable two hours I can remember in awhile.

Reality quickly began to set in. I tried to write. Couldn’t do that. So I made a few phone calls. The first one of course was to Michelle, then to Michael, and finally to work, to make sure they hadn’t decided to fire me while I was gone. I then left a message for Alex’s wife Saraph, thanking her for allowing me to undertake this painful yet necessary endeavor with her husband. I offered to do whatever I she needed me to in order to help. I tried really hard not to break down while leaving that message, but I just couldn’t help getting choked up, knowing what she must be going through in anticipation of bearing the burden of continuing to raise her three children, essentially alone.

I grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby food court and then sat down again in my flight gate’s waiting area to write. Just then I noticed a few feet to my left a man who looked really familiar, but I couldn’t remember from where. Now once something like that happens to me, I’m ruined. There was no way I was going to be able to concentrate on anything else until either he got up and left or I went to talk to him and found out where I knew him from.

I sat there, alternating between stolen glances at this guy, and staring at the blank page of notepaper in my lap. He had been engaged in a conversation with another waiting passenger for close to ten minutes, in which time I had gotten about a sentence and a half written. I knew it was no use, and about the time I had decided to just get up and talk to him, he suddenly got up and left. I figured I’d lost my chance, but a few minutes later he returned, and now he sat unoccupied. So I decided to take the plunge. I scooted over to a seat adjacent to his and said, “I’ve been sitting over here for the last fifteen minutes wondering where I know you from. You don’t by any chance work in the music biz in Nashville, do you?”

I had surmised that he was possibly someone I had crossed paths with over the years in the industry. However I was more willing to bet that he was someone whom my current company had been working with as the music director for our annual sales meeting that my department (marketing) is in charge of planning and coordinating. What I found out however, was that the man’s name was Anthony and I did indeed know him. About ten years ago he and his wife attended the same church as Michelle and me. We had all been involved in one of a series of small groups of four or five couples who alternated each week hosting the others for dinner. Our group lasted about six months, so we had seen them pretty often for that period, but hadn’t really bonded as good friends. For whatever reason it had been at least eight years since I had seen Anthony. Running into him in Dallas seemed downright surreal.

We talked for a few minutes about where we were at in our respective lives. Anthony admitted to having had a bit of career uncertainty in the years since we’d last met. He was a banker then, but in recent years had spent time in the health insurance industry, before working his way into his current career as an executive asset manger for a healthcare-related real estate trust company. He was also on his way back home to Nashville after a business meeting in Dallas.

What was significant about our conversation was the serendipity of Anthony’s former career and my own circumstance. In explaining to him about Alex and my reason for being in Dallas, the subject of my own disposition regarding Alzheimer’s disease soon came up. Anthony asked me straight up if I had long term disability insurance in the event, how ever unlikely it might appear at this point, that my own test results turn up positive for carrying the genetic mutation for familial AD.

I told him that I had planned to get a policy in place as soon as possible. He discussed with me the importance of getting it done before learning any information about my test results. He said that the movement underway in the health insurance industry was to exclude coverage of any possible pre-existing familial AD conditions was gaining more and more momentum as research reveals more about its nature. It was sobering to say the least. I’m obviously hopeful that it’s a moot point, and that given the history of onset with those in my family unfortunate enough to have it, that I’m indeed in the clear at age 48. But my reality is that until I get the test results, I really can’t know whether or not I too carry the gene.

The flight home was a blur. I navigated numerous waves of emotion as the past day’s events washed over me. On so many levels this was an experience unlike any other. Clearly I moved into a new phase of relationship with Alex and his family (on that note, I’ll talk a lot more at a later time in another story). But more importantly, I feel as though I’ve moved into a new phase in relationship with myself. The future of those I love is no longer some nebulous indeterminate period of time. Life seems so much more precious now, because the end of one life that I love very much is actually in sight. It is now no safe bet that Alex will out-live our Father.

If you’ve been with me from the beginning, you know that this story has taken on a life of its own. It has all but become my blog. And while it can't have what one would consider a happy ending, it does spotlight a love that no disease will ever be able to choke out. This event has made an already close-knit family even more so, in an expression of closeness that I am extremely proud to continue to be a part of. And that’s something very happy — and precious — indeed.

I will bring this chapter to a close, but this story is far from over. There is obviously still a lot to be written. There are many unknowns yet to be discovered, but one truth has become powerfully affirmed to me once again. The family time bomb might still be alive, but so is the heartbeat of my family.

It’s still ticking too.

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