One of the saddest but most useful lessons I learned in living alongside an Alzheimer’s patient was that I could not bring her to where I was in time. A lifetime of memories appeared to still float around inside my mother’s head. However, the pathways that connected the memories in an orderly fashion were irreparably fractured. Sometimes, we could navigate around the potholes in her mind. But sometimes the gullies were too deep to cross.
Repeated reminders as to what day it was or what year it was or what city we were in did little to backfill those gullies of washed-out memory. All that did was frustrate everyone in the room.
Instead, I became a time traveler.
If Mom believed she was waiting on the Fayetteville-to-Atkinson train in anticipation of visiting her maternal cousins and aunts and uncles, then I sat down in the station with her. We waited together, looking across the room at the wall calendar from 1944. If she was teaching kindergarten again on that September day in 1954 when Hurricane Hazel devastated the North Carolina coast, then we made sure that all the children in the classroom had rides home. If it was the afternoon that she was to teach children’s Catechism at the church, then we would practice the first few questions:
“Who made you?”
“What else did God make?”
“God made all things.”
“Why did God make you and all things?”
“For His own glory.”
Sometimes I was still her son. But increasingly, I was just another nice person in the train station or another figure of authority in a classroom of vulnerable children or simply a vaguely familiar visitor in an even less familiar sitting room.
Mom’s dad was Malcolm McQueen. His brothers were Pete and Bill; his sister was Catherine; and there was another brother who died very early in life in a fire. They grew up in the little North Carolina community of White Oak, 20 or so miles from White Lake. Mom grew up spending summers at her paternal grandmother Kate McQueen’s cottages on the side of the lake close to where Goldston’s Beach is now. I was less than a glimmer in someone’s eye during those years, but my brothers and I heard stories of those old days from our very beginning. In my childhood, Bill McQueen and his wife Louise used to rent a place on that side of the lake for a week each summer to commemorate the old days. We brothers would go with them for the whole week, and Mom and Dad would come in and out and in again. Sometimes, members of the Peter McQueen crowd from Clinton would make their appearances as well.
I remember Uncle Bill losing his glasses in the water and my brother Malcolm collecting the $10 reward for finding them. There was also a fly-killing contest where each child had one of the metal-handled fly swatters with the screened-porch-looking business end. Uncle Bill offered 5 cents per fly, payable at the end of the week. Visual confirmation of the winged corpse was a prerequisite before recording a mark on the tally sheet. And I remember Aunt Wezy laughing from deep in her belly as she watched us crashing into each other in the bumper cars at the arcade.
In 2004, while returning from a morning turkey hunt in Atkinson, I made an unplanned stop at the lake in response to a for-sale sign in the Timberlodge neighborhood. Completely on impulse, I bought a waterfront place a few weeks later for me and my wife Susanna. Our next-door neighbors became our best couple friends. Their daughter and ours lived together at college in Wilmington for a year. We had parties in the yard and fireworks on the Fourth of July. The children learned to wakeboard. And we crashed into each other in those same bumper cars that made Wezy guffaw so in the late 1960s.
And in those years, my mom would sit sunning on the end of the pier, looking across at where Kate’s house had been. The pathway that tied her childhood to her old age was still in very good shape. She could see herself with Cousin Peg McQueen and Aunt Catherine McQueen lounging in the water. She could then look down at her own grandchildren doing the same thing in that moment. The continuity through time was still very clear to her. Mom was happy.
Later, at the height of her confusion, I arranged to check her out for the day and take her to the lake for what would turn out to be her last visit. I have no real recollection of our conversation on the trip from Village Drive in Fayetteville through Cedar Creek, past the fire tower, or into Bladen County. I suspect it was forced and unnatural.
We slowed as we drove into White Oak, passed by Cain’s Grill and accelerated toward the White Oak Baptist Church and the resumption of the 55mph speed limit. I confess that I was probably thinking how many more quarter hours it was to the lake where I could get some help from Susanna with Mom’s basic care.
Somewhere from off to the side of that potholed and washed out road inside her mind, my mother suddenly took on an appearance of stark clarity. I remember it vividly, the color rising in her cheeks. From her perch in my truck, she pointed just ahead into the cemetery of the White Oak Baptist Church.
“There is Owen’s grave,” she stated. Something about the way she looked made me decelerate.
“Owen who?” I said.
“Owen McQueen.” The name meant nothing to me, and I guess that showed. “Daddy’s little brother.”
I had been going to White Lake with my mother from the time I was a little boy. Always, we took Highway 53 through White Oak. I had taken her to the lake several times myself since buying my own place. To my recollection, I had never heard the name Owen McQueen, much less visited a cemetery where he reputedly lay. I had heard the story though. A little boy in a turn-of-the-century house, who got too close to the cook fire, had his clothes ignite, and, in pain and panic, bolted out of the house and into the yard. No one could catch him. The little boy died of his injuries.
In fact, I remember the story being told to us as a warning not to play with fire and as a warning to roll on the ground, not run away, if something similar ever happened to us boys.
In that moment, I failed at the strategy of going to wherever my mother was in her own mind. Instead of saying, “It sure is” and driving on, I said, “Mom, that is the Baptist church. Your Dad’s family went to the Methodist church.” It did not deter her, though she did retreat somewhat into the fog. Again though, she said declaratively, “That was Owen’s grave.”
Why did I decide to patronize her knowing it would delay my arrival at the lake? I did not believe her. She had Alzheimer’s disease and it was progressing on a downhill slope. Plus, by then, I was probably a half mile beyond the White Oak town limits. Still, I turned around and eased into the dirt drive between the gravestones.
I turned to looked at my passenger, who was growing more and more difficult to recognize with each passing day. “Mom, where is Owen’s grave?”
“Right there,” she said, pointing again, this time to a specific stone right up front near the road. Oddly enough, it was a marker that in my travels I had actually noticed. It was short, but it had small statue of some kind on top that was noticeable even from a passing and accelerating truck. So I got out.
In my approach, I looked first at the statuette on top. It was a little lamb. The name on the stone? Owen McQueen, age 5. My great Uncle Owen, who had watched me ride by this spot time after time for more than 50 years. This was my first time noticing him. My tears fell unabated.
I went back to the truck and opened Mom’s door. Gently, I took off her seatbelt, took her arm, and said, “Mom, let’s go see Uncle Owen.”
This boy-turned-man and his sweet mother-turned-child-again walked slowly to the ancient grave of a boy that never became a man. Mom told the old story of a little boy dying tragically long, long ago. Only this time, she used his name – Owen. I thought of the anguish that must have befallen the parents and the community at that time. I wondered if anyone on the earth other than my mother knew whose life was commemorated by this small stone with the lamb at the White Oak Baptist Church. I thought of the forgetful nature of time.
When you pass through the little burg of White Oak, no doubt on your way to somewhere else, look in the cemetery of the White Oak Baptist Church. There is a little lamb on top of a stone. There, one day a few years back, Mom introduced me to my Uncle Owen McQueen.
Tell him Bill said hello. Probably, his niece will hear you too.