A 42-year-old memory
Most of us easily recall where we were and what we were doing when we first heard about significant events. Assuming you are old enough to remember, where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated? What were you doing when you heard about the Challenger explosion or, later, when the Columbia disintegrated because of problems with heat shield tiles? How did you first learn about the 9/11 terrorist attacks? One such defining moment for me was July 20, 1969, when the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed on the moon.
I had graduated high school just a few weeks earlier and had taken a summer job as a live-in caretaker for “Mrs. C.” Because of arthritis and other stability issues, Mrs. C. used two rubber-tipped broomsticks to get around. Her biggest problem, though, was memory loss (probably Alzheimer’s, though I doubt the condition had been named at that point).
Our days were predictable: mornings and early afternoons were fairly calm. As the day wore on, however, Mrs. C. would start asking for her husband and then become more and more agitated the longer she “waited” for him. She would become so upset that I would have no choice but to tell her that he was dead, and no matter how gentle I tried to be, each time it was as if he had died all over again. By early evening, Mrs. C. would decide that she needed to go look for her husband. I was never able to dissuade her, so we usually ended up walking around the block. By time we made it back to her house, she was exhausted and ready for bed. All that exercise meant a good night’s sleep for both of us, and we needed it because the pattern would almost invariably repeat itself the next day.***
July 20th, 1969 turned out to be a very different kind of day.
We, along with most of the rest of the U.S., were caught up in the excitement and anticipation of the moon landing. Good thing, because our already limited (pre-cable) television options offered little except Apollo 11 coverage. The astronauts landed on the moon at a little after 4 p.m. eastern time, and the space walk began some six hours later. Since we were on mountain time, coverage of the lunar landing and subsequent space walk consumed most of our afternoon and evening.
For whatever reason, Mrs. C. was completely engaged by the images and commentary of the event, so much so that for at least that day, she forgot to remember her long-dead husband. That’s not to say, however, that she understood what was going on or that her reactions to what she saw were rational. Far from it! At one point, she was convinced that we were on the moon with the astronauts!
To this day, I can’t think of the Apollo 11 moon landing without also remembering my time with Mrs. C. In hindsight, I’m still amazed that Mrs. C.’s family left their matriarch in the care of a naive, inexperienced 17-year-old. Of course, I also can’t believe my parents allowed me to take the job! Needless to say, I am forever grateful that nothing more serious than the events I’ve described here occurred during my tenure with Mrs. C.
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***Another time, in the very early hours of the day, Mrs. C. decided she was cold. I was sound asleep and didn’t hear her get up. Next thing I knew she was in the basement attempting, I guess, to start the furnace. I have no idea how she managed to get down the basement stairs without falling, but I can testify to how difficult it was to get her back up the stairs. Picture her crawling up the stairs like a baby with me behind her, pushing on her bottom. Once we made it to the top of the stairs, I needed to figure out how to help her stand up. After a bit of thought and some muscle, I was able to get her to raise up enough to put an enamel washbasin under her bottom. From there, we had enough leverage to get her onto progressively higher “seats” and, eventually, to a full standing position. I took her back to bed and then went back to sleep myself. Well…I guess I should have also put another blanket on her bed because it wasn’t too long before she was back in the basement again and, yep, we had to go through the entire up-the-stairs process again.