By Sean Dietrich
I am watching Jeopardy! with an elderly woman who doesn’t know why I’m here because she has Alzheimer’s.
We are in a nursing home. She sits in a wheelchair and blurts out answers along with the TV contestants.
To be honest, Jeopardy! moves too fast for me. By the time I’ve figured out one question, the show is over, and the eighteen-year-old from Sheboygan, who designs nanotubular probes for NASA, has won twelve thousand dollars. Game over.
This elderly woman was a tenth-grade English teacher. She has spent a lifetime sharpening her brain. She taught English, literature, and poetry. She showed average children how to become above average.
I am here to interview her, but she is too engrossed.
The nurse introduces us.
The elderly woman says, “Who’re you, and where’s my blueberry yogurt?”
“This man is a writer,” the nurse explains. “Remember, I told you?”
“I don’t care if he’s Topo Gigio,” she says. “Where’s my yogurt?”
The nurse winks at me.
So far so good.
I clear my throat and ask a question to get the conversational banter going. The woman shushes me, then shouts: “I’ll take folk music for five hundred!”
“What is ‘the Ballad of Frankie and Johnnie!’”
The nurse winks at me again and urges me to keep questioning. So I do.
“Do you play piano anymore?” I ask. “Your nurse tells me you play the—”
“What is the Treaty of Tordesillas!”
It’s impressive how this elderly woman can know so much trivia, but doesn’t always remember her own name. Alzheimer’s is a cruel enemy.
I am about to give up on the interview when one of the nearby nurses whispers a story to me. She tells me that long ago, this woman was her high-school teacher. The woman taught her to appreciate books like Catcher in the Rye, the Old Man and the Sea, and Animal Farm.
“I decided I wanted to BE a nurse because of her,” the nurse explains. “I was in a bad situation, living with my boyfriend’s family, my mom had just died. I was lost…”
“Who is Saint Hubert!” yells the elderly woman. She looks at me with crazed eyes. “Saint Hubert! Ha!”
The only Hubert I ever knew was my former supervisor who often belittled employees in public. He also spoke with an unnaturally high voice. Because of this, some employees called him “Huberty Puberty.”
One disgruntled coworker even wrote this nickname on Hubert’s new Mustang convertible with shaving cream. Not me. I didn’t do it. I would never do that. But I did purchase the shaving cream.
The elderly woman’s son drops in. When she sees him, she says:
“Yogurt, get my yogurt. They’re trying to kill me. Where are my car keys? I need yogurt. I like blueberry. Who are you?”
“It’s okay, Mama,” he says. “I’m here, Mama.”
She returns to her beloved Alex Trebek.
Her son whispers, “When I was a kid, Mama was all about civil rights, she wanted to take me and my sister to a Doctor King rally, but my dad was like, ‘No, it’s too dangerous…’”
“Who is Andy Williams!” the woman says.
“My mother was ostracized by her friends for things she believed. But she didn’t care, she knew she was doing right in this world, and her students looked up to her.”
Another interruption by a middle-aged woman who comes through the door. Her name is Carrie.
“I went to her church,” Carrie says. “She was so cool. She had a huge influence on me.
“When I was twenty, I almost gave up college, I wasn’t sure I could go through with the rest of my degree. She took me to lunch one day and told me that she believed in me, and she let me bear my soul for hours. I cried a lot, she was my hero. She changed my life, you know?”
“What is a Keebler elf!” the old woman hollers.
When Jeopardy! is over, the woman’s son apologizes to me. He tells me his mother’s disease brings many good days and bad days. Today wasn’t exactly a “good day,” he explains.
But I don’t mind. Interviews don’t always work out. You win some, you lose many.
I am about to leave when the elderly woman in the wheelchair faces me. She smiles, and I can see something sharp in her eyes. She’s awake.
It’s her. The real her. She is a beacon in an overcast world. She is a voice. She is someone who once told children that they were unique. And important. And equal. And loved. And that we can be whatever we want to be if we try. And even though she is foggy today, she will always be holy because of this. For she is a teacher.
The lady’s eyes rest on me. “Now who’re you again?” she says.
Her son answers, “This is the writer I told you about, Mama.”
“Oh, the writer? Did you know I used to teach writing? I taught a lotta beautiful kids. Kids are so beautiful aren’t they? So very, very beautiful.”
And so are you.
Next time, I’ll bring yogurt.
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