- Associated Press - Sunday, May 10, 2015

ALLEN, Texas (AP) - A duck used to follow Molly Meyer’s mother home from school.

Maybe it seems like a trivial thing, that duck, in a life spanning 83 years, with four children, a grumpy but adoring husband and a real estate career that allowed her to travel the world.

But toward the end, after Alzheimer’s disease erased most of what mattered in her life, that’s what she had left - a flicker of a childhood memory.

“She talked about the duck and then she died,” said Meyer, owner of Mind’s Eye Poetry, an Allen business that uses language as therapy for Alzheimer’s patients. “Over the course of my life, she probably told me 20 times what she had named that duck, but I was too busy to listen.”

Regret may be inevitable at the end.

Alzheimer’s is called the disease of the long goodbye, but for Meyer it all happened too quickly.

Her father died of the memory disorder in 2011, and her mother was gone a year later. About the same time, she finalized a divorce from her husband of 25 years.

“I’m still recovering,” she told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1If2RNq), a tentative smile backlit by pain. “It was an abandonment thing. I felt like I could be disposable.”

But amid the acrimony and crumbling facades of marriage, Meyer occasionally thought about that duck.

It was a metaphor, obviously - we need to listen to our loved ones now, because tomorrow may be so, so silent - but maybe it was also a parable and a cautionary tale.

Meyer ached for every missed moment with her mother. She felt guilty about every time she was impatient and every time she fought Alzheimer’s for a memory, and lost.

“You think you’re prepared and you’re not,” she said. “You know they have a terminal illness, but there’s just something about knowing they’re not breathing that’s devastating.”

Meyer lived 40 of her 52 years in Phoenix. She married and raised three of her four children there. But after her parents died, and her marriage died, there was no reason to stay.

She and her daughter moved to Allen two years ago.

Certainly the sum of her life - teaching seventh grade, running a small business, the wisdom gained from surviving pain - couldn’t be measured mathematically, a simple division of marital assets. But sometimes it felt that way.

Meyer was alone with a 13-year-old, a master’s degree in poetry and an idea.

People say they re-create themselves all the time. But is that really possible?

Meyer described her decision this way: “I just sat down and tried to figure out what I could do with my quirky skill-set.”

It would be unfair to say Meyer is uptight. She isn’t, but there is a coiled-spring quality about her, a tension, as if something under the surface is straining to break free.

“Writing lets me process things and get past anxieties,” she said. “My disposition doesn’t allow me to relax, but with a creative outlet, I can deal with things in a positive way.”

On this day, a Wednesday morning at Belmont Village Senior Living in Oak Lawn, Meyer paced in front of a group of seniors with varying degrees of memory loss. And she repeated a prompt - “My recipe box is a memory box.”

It didn’t look promising.

Some people were asleep, others stared ahead with blank eyes.

Meyer began every “poetry facilitation” the same way - with an adult version of show and tell.

She passed around tactile objects - in this case, a quilt made by her mother, a homemade hand towel with her father’s salsa recipe, her son’s sock monkey - and invited people to touch them and imagine their emotional meaning.

The idea, she explained later, is to get her class thinking about the value of family and the cherished heirlooms people leave behind. Once focused, she began probing for memories.

“Tell me something that’s your specialty, that you fixed,” she said, scanning 13 faces assembled around a table, asking for a recipe. “Or maybe even better, tell me what it was that your mother or grandmother made.”

The response was immediate.

“Candy,” said Virginia Meyers, a 92-year-old from Fort Worth. With prodding, she added details - it was fudge made by her grandmother.

“OK, give me something about your grandmother,” Meyer pressed. “Why was she special? Can you imagine what she looked like or what she wore while she was making fudge?”

No real answer.

“OK, what made this fudge so great?” Meyer asked.

The woman paused, silver hair framing a face with deep lines.

“Well, I guess watching her make it more than anything else,” she said.

“Oh, I love that,” Meyer said, scribbling on a notepad. “Watching her make it rather that eating it. I love that.”

And she was off. Over the next few minutes, Meyer darted around the room, as if she was trying to convert her kinetic energy into stanzas.

She was wearing jackboots, pearls and a knee-length black-and-white checked jacket. Her hair was teased up and out (think Liza Minnelli, but auburn), and she carried herself upright and angular.

A beatnik poet, she is not.

Her speech is rat-a-tat-tat, but there is tenderness in the brevity. She hugs, touches hands, comforts. And it seemed to be working.

Over the next few minutes, Meyer sharpened the poetic scene - a young girl standing at her grandmother’s feet, waiting for a chance to lick the bowl.

“That’s what happens with me, too. My daughter wants to lick the beaters,” Meyer said. “But nowadays you really can’t let them because of eggs, because they say you can get sick from the eggs.”

Chuckles ricocheted around the table.

Barbara Hegg, 83, leaned forward with mischief in her eyes. “You know what, isn’t it amazing we lived through that?”

Meyer seemed to enjoy the good-natured ribbing.

The poem bogged down as the group tried to describe the last few licks from the bowl.

One woman suggested “leftovers.”

Then, 89-year-old Virginia Bickel said off-handedly, “Well, we used to call it sopping the pan.”

Meyer pounced.

“That’s a great expression,” she said. “I’ve never heard it. Let’s put that in the poem.”

By the end of the exercise, voices leapfrogged and Meyer struggling to keep up.

It’s not always this easy. This is Meyer’s most advanced class. She writes poetry at several memory care centers around Dallas, with people in later stages of the disease. But even in the most heartbreaking cases, Meyer finds gems.

Once, Meyer sat down with a woman named Charlotte, who raised four boys that all became doctors.

Meyer asked: “Charlotte, what’s the secret to life?”

“Oh honey, that’s easy,” Charlotte said. “You gotta see the good in people even if it’s not there.”

Scientists aren’t sure if poetry classes - or music, painting or pottery - slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. But research suggests exercise that requires memorization, like salsa dancing or tai chi, strengthens both the body and the brain, much as it does for someone who is healthy.

Sandra F. Simmons, an associate professor at Vanderbilt’s Center for Quality Aging, led a team that studied Alzheimer’s programs at a Belmont Village home in Nashville, a study now being expanded to each of the chain’s 23 facilities, including Dallas.

She said people with dementia are often socially isolated, depressed and agitated. Many spend their days alone in their room, sleeping. That changed after a year of structured, mind-stimulating activities.

“Cognition improved slightly, but more importantly, we saw a marked difference in their quality of life,” Simmons said. “Poetry is a novel approach, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the same underlying benefit.”

The key is active participation. She said parking Alzheimer’s patients in a room with classical music playing won’t work. But an activity where patients must keep time with music by clapping twice at each downbeat, might.

Meyer sees evidence of this in her poetry classes, too. When people plug in, they occasionally come alive.

“Just sit down with someone one on one,” she said. “And bring them things from their life - a vase, a pocket watch, whatever - and say, ‘Look at this. What’s the first thing you think about?’ And just start writing, because they’re going to talk. If you have the patience to write it down, you’ll never regret it.”

Those words sting - patience and regret.

Meyer was close to her mother, perhaps in part, because they were so similar. Fashion was important to both of them, and they were both fastidious, whip smart and fairly high strung.

Toward the end, Meyer struggled to decode her mother’s idiosyncrasies.

Marilyn Meyer started taking everything out of the closet each night, putting clothes on her bed and sleeping on them.

The next morning, she’d sheepishly meet her daughter at the door to her room.

“I know you’re going to be mad at me,” Meyer remembered her saying. “And then I’d say, ‘Mom, I’m not mad at you, I’m frustrated. Now your clothes are all wrinkled.’”

Each day, Meyer would sit her mother in a chair and repack her closet.

“I would pick up every single thing in my anal way, and I’d put the short sleeves from light to dark, and then the long sleeves, light to dark,” she said. “I wanted to organize her. My mom always looked good, and I wanted her to have her dignity.

“But I missed the forest for the trees, because dignity would have been, ‘Mom, they’re clothes, who cares? What do you want to do? What do you want to talk about? Look, you got your nails done. They look beautiful.’”

Meyer believes she will die of Alzheimer’s, and the thought is terrifying.

She knows what the indignity and dependence looks like. But a fear of simplicity keeps her awake at night.

Meyer once briefly dated a man named Kevin. And like an attentive boyfriend-to-be, he visited her mother one afternoon at the memory care center.

Her mother later remembered the visit, but not his name.

“Mom, it rhymes with heaven,” Meyer said. “It’s a name and it rhymes with heaven.”

“My mom was a bright woman, so she starts to get frustrated. She said, ‘I know what rhymes with heaven.’ And I said, ‘OK, what?’ And she says, ‘Fifteen!’”

Meyer said she couldn’t feel anything but fear.

With a degree in poetry and several pieces of published work, her identity was threatened.

“I looked at her and I was like, ‘Hell no. I’m not going out like that,’” Meyer said. “When I don’t know something rhymes with something else, that’s the end of the world.”

Her insecurities lived right under the surface. Every time she’d forget something - directions or the name of a restaurant - she’d convince herself it was early-onset Alzheimer’s. And when she’d remembered them, she’d Google “Alzheimer’s phobia.”

But one afternoon, Meyer said her mother taught her something about living in the moment.

They were sitting together on the fringe of a ballroom. Meyer was thinking about everything her mother wasn’t. Then music filled the room - “It’s A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. Her mother straightened up a little and held out her hand.

Gently, Meyer led her to the dance floor. And with all of her 89 pounds, Marilyn Meyer held on to her daughter’s shoulders. They swayed as the music soared. It was their last dance.

“These are the moments in your life when you look back and say, ‘Regardless of your faith, this is profound and spiritual,’” Meyer said, eyes moist. “I was so joyful in that moment, and she was, too.”


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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