9/16/2016 Dan Bailes '67

Call it Dogwood Syndrome

This magazine article is part of Summer 2016 / Issue 86
  • dan bailes high res Image Credit: Howard Korn

On a smashingly beautiful spring morning, Sharon and I relaxed out back in our garden. A symphony of flowers trumpeted the season: hollyhocks, Gerber daisies, hanging fuchsias in scarlet and purple among stone garden creatures, strategically sited. Watching over our little haven was a wooden pergola crowned with yellow roses and two trees: a crepe myrtle—and the one I couldn't name.

I eyed my empty teacup, hoping the unfurled leaves would offer a clue. I knew we'd transplanted that tree from Mom's house, and even remembered helping Sharon widen the hole and tamp down the soil, hoping the sapling could flourish by our fence. Ten years later, it was lush with white blossoms tinged with of a touch of red. They're said to form the shape of a cross, reminding us of Jesus and his doom.

I could recall so much about that damn tree—everything but its name. I kept thinking "daffodil," which I knew was wrong. In my thoughts, "spring" and "daffodil" were locked together like an iron gate, keeping other words from coming to mind. I put down my cup and pondered the tree.

Awash in dappled sunlight, its blossoms quivered in the gentle breeze. I wanted to share that with Sharon. I wanted to say, "Look at the tree, it's so beautiful." But nothing rose to the surface.

Finally, my face flushed with the effort, I sighed and gave up. "What's that tree called?" I pointed.

She gave me a funny look. "Dogwood," she said.

It was definitely a sign.

I have trouble remembering names. When someone tells me their name it just drifts away like morning mist. "I'm great with pronouns," I joke, "but proper nouns? Forget about it."

It's not just me. My friends aren't as sharp as they used to be. They talk about their memory, or lack thereof, all the time. Conversation gets bogged down with trivia, when we used to explore politics, art, or diverging philosophies of life. Richie says, "If you don't remember where your keys are, it's just aging. If you don't know what your keys are for, you're in trouble."

When I can't remember a person's name, okay, it's embarrassing, but I can live with it. But not being able to call up the name of something simple, like a dogwood tree? Richie's right—could be trouble. Big trouble.

"Why don't you check it out with a doctor?" Sharon said.

But what if I was right? Did I really want to             know?

My mother had dementia—a murky cloud that shadowed her golden years. She wasn't lost in the past, she just couldn't manage the present. She got easily confused and was always apologizing for it.

Having helped ease her downward slide, I was still keeping vigil—although now on guard for my own slippery moments, when thoughts weren't flowing as they usually do.

We saw her neurologist for the Test: "I'm going to say four words. Remember them and later I'll ask you to repeat them." Then:

"Where are you?"

"What's today's date?"

"What's the President's name?"

"Count backward from 100 subtracting 7 each time."

"Draw a cube."

And:

"What are the four words?"

Her scores tracked her decline. One day, she got less than half right and was rewarded with a diagnosis.

Now, in another doctor's office, it was my turn to test memory and cognitive function. My skin tingled. It was hard to catch my breath. "Focus, Dan, " I whispered.

I'm used to getting A's and exceeding expectations, but could remember only half the words. Perfect score was 30. I got 28.

Call it Dogwood Syndrome.

"There isn't enough impairment to make a diagnosis," my neurologist told me. "See me in a year and we'll compare results."

I didn't know how to take that, especially the word "impairment." It's more about loss, isn't it? Like losing everything you cherish, a piece at a time.

Losing words, for a writer, unleashes a special agony. "They're not really lost," I try to comfort myself, "they're just stuck in some dark crevice of my brain, waiting to be released." For me, words are both a blessing and curse. Yes, they elevate us one step higher than savages, and yes, they bedevil me. But when all effort fails, there are those delicious, soul-saving synonyms that keep hope alive.

For my mother's 85th birthday, we planned a small party. My aunt, a bookstore owner, asked what books she might like. Books are prized in our family and Mom spent hours with them every day. She rarely went out.

Still, if I picked up one of her books and asked, "What's it about?" it was hard for her to say. Although she would live nine more years, dementia had already clouded her mind. "Just get books with photographs,” I told my aunt, “that way, Mom has something to look at as she turns the pages."

On the day of her 85th, we gathered in our living room. Mom loved family events, her eyes shining with the comfort only family can bring. She asked Aunt Sylvia how her bookstore was doing. She asked again a few minutes later. Then again a few minutes after that.

My aunt looked at me, hoping I would say "Mom's just tired" or "she's a little confused." I couldn't, even though I wanted to. Our family fabric was falling apart, but Mom just smiled, happy we were there to celebrate her birthday.

That year, I found a caretaker to help Mom through her days, and I came by once a week to take her "out for an airing." We saw the world so differently: she didn't ask much from life, living by rules and expectations; I careened around life's corners, making it up as I went along. She always told me, "Keep it simple." I realized it was time to take her advice.

Mom loved flowers and each spring we'd drive around looking for new blooms: forsythia, tulips, daffodils and quince. I'd ask her to name them and, like a schoolgirl, she would. I'd ask her to spell simple words or, pretending we were lost, to read street signs. She'd always respond, proud when she got it right. I marveled at how, as she diminished, we'd finally found common ground and an easy way to be together.

But, every time we stopped at a light, Mom asked, "Why does the red bus always pass in front of our car?" or "Why does the man always stand on that corner?" I thought she was living life in slow motion, but her addled brain was still busy, hoping to explain the hidden messages in those "always" moments.

What could I say? "This is the first time we've seen the bus or the man."

"It all seems so real," she'd sigh, "I don't know what's wrong with me."

"It's just déjà vu, all over again," would run through my mind. Weird, how humor bubbles up at such times.

Then she'd apologize for her "stupid brain." 

I think "stupid brain" makes more sense than "impairment." It's like something outside yourself, outside of who you are, turning off neural pathways one by one.

After I moved her to Sunrise Assisted Living, one lovely afternoon we spent time on the balcony. Golden maples shimmered in the breeze, as billowing clouds floated by. I told her one of my first memories: the smell of new mown grass and lying on a blanket with my brother, looking at drifting clouds as she described the fantastic beings gliding across the deep blue sky. I wanted to float up there and play with all those puffy creatures. I’d felt warm, safe, and thought it would be like that forever.

She looked so frail, hunched in her wheelchair. I gazed into her grey-green eyes, but it was hard to see the young, vital woman who'd fed and clothed our family, and beamed so much light into our home. Her hand felt like a small bird, poised to fly away.

I marveled: with all the challenges she faced, she kept a light spirit, content to float within the narrow corridors of her dwindling days.

It's been two years since Mom passed. Now, when it takes too long for the right word to bubble to the surface, I shake my head and wonder if she was offering me a roadmap, showing how to navigate my own decline.

That's the thing about looking for signs of your own little lapses: it keeps you in constant dialogue with yourself—and removes you from everyone else. You're left searching for clues to track your own withering brain, or obsessing about every missed name and lost word.

I think my Dogwood Syndrome offers a chance to see those troubling omens with new eyes, to focus on friends, family and the beckoning world around me—to grab hold of the next moment, and the next—name them when I can, celebrate them when I can't, and see where it all takes me. If I can't capture the world with words, I can still embrace it with my head and heart.

  • Dan Bailes ’67 is a writer and storyteller who explores creativity, innovation and vision
in his blog, The Vision Thing. “Call it Dogwood Syndrome” also appears in the 2016 edition of the F&M Alumni Arts Review. Dan Bailes ’67 is a writer and storyteller who explores creativity, innovation and vision in his blog, The Vision Thing. “Call it Dogwood Syndrome” also appears in the 2016 edition of the F&M Alumni Arts Review. Image Credit: Howard Korn
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