Bella and I have spent 17 days in Scotland and done everything right. We haven’t lost our tempers or each other.
I did have to call her a couple of times when we got separated in the National Museum of Scotland, but — thank God for cellphones — that was easily solved.
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.
Now, in the Edinburgh Airport, complacency after our successful journey is getting the better of me. First, I spend longer than I should reading something on my phone at the coffee shop before we head to the security check, where scores of people are backed up, stripping off belts and unzipping bags.
Then I decide I’ve got time to use up my Scottish currency in the duty-free shop, even though our flight leaves in 40 minutes. I find a bottle of gin at the right price and round the corner to discover a long line for the cash registers.
“Why don’t I take the bags and go to the gate?” Bella says.
I hesitate. But the gates must be close, and there are always signs.
“Gates 26-29,” I say. “I’ll be right there.”
By the time I have the gin in hand, it’s 10 minutes before departure. I spot a sign that says the gate is 9 minutes away. I begin to run.
As I run, I am praying and also cursing myself.
Bella is not at the gate, but an attendant is, radio in hand. The plane is about to leave, she says.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “My wife has younger onset Alzheimer’s disease. I was in the duty-free shop, and I let her go to the gate ahead of me. I shouldn’t have.”
The clerk looks down and speaks into the radio: “They have a connection to Boston, and it’s going to be really hard for them if they miss this.”
I reach Bella on my cellphone: “Where are you?”
“I’m at Gate 10. You didn’t tell me where to go.”
“It’s Gate 28. It’s a long way.”
After a moment, I run back down the corridor and I see her, not far away, flip-flops in hand because she can go faster in bare feet. I snatch the carry-on bags and dash back to the gate. We make it.
Keeping our balance
For most of the trip, I do better at keeping in mind how things have changed. It’s a balancing act, as our marriage (28 years this April) has always been, but the balance shifts more often now.
I have to take more control, without treating her like a child. She has to let me take over things like getting us around the city, without losing her sense of identity or her self-esteem.
We’ve rented a flat right in Edinburgh where we sleep each night, spending the days walking for miles through the city and taking longer trips to other cities by train.
On the trains, an announcement plays before each stop to “mind the gap” — a warning to watch out for the space between the car and the platform as you’re stepping off. When I hear it, I think about the gaps Bella and I have to mind.
She feels the space opening up between how she is now and how she used to be.
“I try to build a bridge to that person, and I usually can,” she tells me.
I track her symptoms differently than she does. She only occasionally senses when she is repeating herself or has forgotten something, but I notice every crack and crevice in her thinking.
Mostly, she lives in the moment — stopping to pet people’s dogs, turning her head for a kiss — but I can’t help gauging the progress of the disease.
I am alarmed by her symptoms, but I also normalize them. I know she is still there — the essence of her — and my heart responds. But I can’t shut off the observer in me — the part that takes note of each cognitive slip — and what happens in the airport shows the folly of pretending nothing has changed.
Still, spending hours a day together, through days that stretch on and on into the illuminated evenings of the far north, I do start to relax.
We love sitting on the couch with a blanket over our legs, watching the World Cup. We love walking hand in hand along the sidewalk, awed by the stone edifices of Edinburgh. We love sharing a pint, an island of difference in the neighborhood pub, whispering to each other like spies.
The moment can be enough. Does it matter if the moment gets forgotten? We always have a moment in which to be.
The lingering light
Our last day in the flat is June 21, the summer solstice, and we spend it watching three World Cup games and packing. Bella asks if there is another game and I say no.
“It’s so light out!” She looks outside, where it’s only a little bit dim at 10:30 p.m. “You should take the trash out.”
“I’m going to,” I say, and we spend some more time folding dirty laundry so it will fit in our luggage, laying our souvenir tartan blankets on top, wrapping mugs from the pub downstairs in newspaper and fitting them in our carry-on.
“Don’t forget to take out the trash,” Bella says.
I check our passports and our flight itinerary, the cash in my wallet, the food left in the refrigerator. I sit down to pull on my sneakers, and Bella looks up.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking the trash out.”
“Oh!” she says. “Good idea!”
When I get back to the flat, I scoot into the bedroom with my notebook to scribble down our conversation. Bella discovers me there.
“OK. Another crazy thing Bella did?” she says.
“Yes,” I say, and she gives me a kiss and flounces back out of the room.
People and pets
One train trip is to St. Andrew’s, home of the famous golf course, which we don’t care about. It also has a spectacular ruined cathedral, whose tower is still standing (which we climb), and a castle on the shore by the sea.
After the cathedral, we run into a young woman walking through the surrounding cemetery with a large, beautiful dog, a Caucasian shepherd. The dog interactions go the same way most times.
“Hey, Buddy,” Bella will say to the passing dog, and she will slow down, eyes alight.
“Is he friendly?” she will ask the owner, and when they say yes, she’ll start petting the dog and chatting with the owner, talking about our dog, Pepper, and our bunny, Beans, and how they miss us, especially Pepper, and how Pepper has been sleeping outside while we’re away, even though she always sleeps in our bed when we’re home, right between us, and when Bella rubs her belly and says, “Do you love your mommy, Pepper?” she answers, “roo-roo-roo.”
Bella’s imitation of Pepper’s crooning cracks people up. She charms them with the childlike pleasure she takes in their pets.
Often, I wander ahead when Bella stops to engage with dogs and their owners, but this time I stay with her and we all chat about the trips we are taking and where we live. When a couple the woman is with comes up, Bella and I leave to walk to the castle, just a short way along the shoreline.
A trail leads down to the beach below the castle and we follow it and scan the stones just above the surf for sea glass, which I collect. I love the way the ocean takes glass with its sharpness and glitter and with salt and waves transforms it into a sort of soft gem.
When we get back to the flat, Bella is exhausted. I’ve spent more than a week dragging her out each day for hours of schlepping through museums and ruins, insisting on climbing every tower, refusing to take the city buses when we can walk.
The next day is the first full day of the World Cup, and we spend it on the couch in front of the TV. Bella sleeps for hours.
One reason we’ve come to Scotland is that Bella loves several Scottish crime writers, especially Ian Rankin, who lives in Edinburgh. She expresses the conviction we will meet him, which seems far-fetched to me, but in one of those fortuitous events that seem to happen when you’re traveling, we spot a sandwich board on the street advertising a “Writers Walk,” and when we show up for it, the guide says he knows Rankin.
“If you want to find him, you might try the Oxford Bar on Thistle Street, which is where he drinks,” he says.
We find the bar, which turns out to be on Young Street (Thistle turns into Young), and it’s a small, neighborhood place, all wood and quiet chat, with enough room at the bar for five or six people and a bigger room in the back with leather on the chair seats so soft it might date from the bar’s origins in the 19th century.
It’s the right place, because they’ve got photos of Rankin on the wall and a framed article about his detective-hero, Rebus.
Bella and I manage to order pints and sit in the back room to sip them.
“Will you go and ask them when Ian Rankin comes in here?” she asks me.
“No. That’s not my style,” I say.
Never mind I’ve spent my entire adult life making a living by approaching strangers with tricky questions. I’m mortified at the thought of asking this business owner about a famous guy he is already using to promote his bar.
Bella goes into the front room herself, and I can hear the sound of her voice and the answering voice of the bartender, who sounds sympathetic.
“I told him I have a brain disease,” she says when she comes back. “And I want to see Ian Rankin before I die.”
We return to the bar three or four times but never run into Rankin. The last time, however, a few of the regulars are talking with the bartender about his wedding, which took place over the weekend.
One is bemoaning his hangover.
“You probably didn’t want to go out Sunday,” the bartender says.
“I didn’t want to go out Monday,” the man says.
“Rankin bought me a drink,” he adds.
“Rankin was buying everyone drinks,” the bartender says.
I’ve prepared a letter for Rankin, with a stamped envelope enclosed that is addressed to Bella in Glens Falls, and I pull it out and ask if they’ll give it to him.
They promise they will.
“You might see him here this week,” one says, “because his wife is out of town. So he’ll probably be in here …” he pauses and two or three of the group sing out — “every day!”
Nonetheless, we don’t go back to the Oxford Bar.
“I’ve given up,” Bella says, but I haven’t. I believe a writer will be attracted to the idea of answering a letter from a fan who hand-delivered it to his pub.
“You told him I have Alzheimer’s, right?” she says.
“Good,” she says.
Don’t say sorry
To get to Edinburgh, we take an overnight flight from Boston to Dublin, where we have a brief layover and change planes. Neither of us sleeps much, and we’re stiff and sore and weary when we arrive and catch a bus for downtown. I’m disoriented when we get off, even though I’ve researched directions to our flat, which I know is nearby.
We have two large, heavy, wheeled suitcases, along with various satchels and purse-like things, and in the process of wandering around to get my bearings, I lead Bella over a couple stretches of cobblestones. The wheels of the suitcases catch between the stones. Getting stuck in the middle of the street, with the traffic coming from an unexpected direction, adds to our stress.
We find the flat — two blocks away — but Bella has had enough by the time we lug the bags up the stairs to the second floor.
“Why didn’t we get a cab?” she says. “Do you always have to do things the cheapest way?”
“Things like this happen when you travel,” I say. “I got us here. I rented this flat. I figured out where the buses run. I didn’t know the streets were going to have cobblestones.”
This ends up being our worst argument of the trip, and within an hour we are in the pub downstairs, trying their soup of the day (cauliflower and brie) along with our first two Scottish pints. Bella apologizes and I say she has nothing to apologize for.
We sip the soup and sip the beer and share our excitement about being in Scotland. We talk about some of the things we’re going to do and try over the next two and a half weeks. Bella apologizes and I say she has nothing to apologize for.