I saw the movie “My Dinner with Andre” around the time it came out, which was 1981, when I was 20.
It made a huge impression on me. I had devoured the novels of Joseph Conrad and was determined to travel the world, embarking on adventures and expanding my mind. This was the way to live, I was sure, and that was the vision embraced, too, by Andre Gregory.
Part of the conceit of the movie is the names of the characters are the same as the names of the actors who play them. So Andre and Wallace, played by Wallace Shawn, sit down to a long dinner, during which Andre tells Wallace about his daring explorations of the outer world and his own inner world, and Wallace tells Andre about his life with his wife and how he is happy if he just gets that hot cup of coffee in the morning and sits with her and sips it.
He’s happy if he just gets that hot cup of coffee, he says, and there’s not a cockroach in it.
What a funny little man Wallace was, I thought, and how thrilling Andre’s adventures were. He understood what life was for.
I undertook those adventures for awhile, then went home for what was supposed to be a visit and met Bella. She and her two young kids had an apartment that took up the third floor of a house in Saranac Lake, and her energy and love filled the apartment with warmth and comfort.
I began to stay there, and although I didn’t think about it this way at the time, I began to understand what Wallace meant. It could be enough to sit at the kitchen table and laugh.
How many laughs we’ve had over the 30 years since then — laughs that burst out in the middle of a fight when someone goes off-script and makes the whole thing seem ridiculous; laughs prompted by a single word, dropped into a random moment, calling to mind a funny scene from the past.
We had an up and down weekend this past week. Our bunny got sick, which had Bella in tears. We took him to the vet, and the bill had me crying inside.
It was hot, and it poured, then it was muggy.
I was scraping the flaking paint off the outside of our back porch. Bella saw her niece and got to spend time with her niece’s baby daughter.
We took our dog for a walk.
Alzheimer's Chronicles with Bella Doolittle
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When we met, Bella was working three jobs, caring for two kids and commuting between two North Country communities an hour apart.
Bella was raised a Catholic, and I went to Quaker meetings as a child in Pennsylvania.
Over everything hung our new reality — the situation that surrounds us like water — that Bella is sick with younger onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Saturday or Sunday evening, I was in the kitchen, pouring the one beer I usually have at the end of the day and listening to Iris DeMent sing “Our Town.”
“And you know the sun’s setting fast/ And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts,” she sang in her quirky voice.
I cleaned out the coffee grounds from the percolator and rinsed out the pot and refilled it with clean water. In a few minutes, “Jeopardy!” would start and Bella and I would sit and watch it, yelling out answers that would occasionally be correct.
DeMent was singing with a birdlike trill.
“Well go on now and kiss it goodbye but hold on to your lover/ ‘Cause your heart’s bound to die.”
I wound the cord around the percolator spout and put it on the counter next to the outlet. In the morning, I would plug it in first thing.
In the evening, I look forward to that first swallow of beer in a mug pulled from the freezer.
As DeMent sang, I dwelled on all the things we had gone through and gotten through.
“Can’t you see the sun’s setting down on our town, on our town/ Goodnight.”
Sometimes the frustrations overwhelm us, but life has been good and still is.
We still have the moments that bring satisfaction to a day, the hot coffee and the cold beer, the sparks of connection.
We still laugh, and that is enough. That is more than enough.
Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on his blog, I think not, and on Twitter at @trafficstatic.