felicia mitchell

I don’t have a 3-D image of my brain.  In various medical offices, there are some rather sophisticated pictures of my bones, breasts, colon, teeth (real and fake), and other body parts, but no brain.  If I were encouraged to let a technician put my brain in a vise once a year while I held my breath and she flicked a switch, would I do it?  No, probably not.

A transmission electron microscope could take a telling picture, though.  All brains with Alzheimer’s disease, or some degree of the disease, have delightfully contoured fibrils that show up with a red glow on a scan.  But no, I don’t want a brain scan.  Either I want to remain clueless, or my insurance company should.

On some days, though, I feel as if my brain is turned inside out anyway.  Some days, I think that anybody who is looking straight at me can see bright red filigree dancing off the side of my head like lightning bolts or moth wings.  Moth wings are a softer image, albeit a more discordant one.  Lightning is clichéd and the opposite of forgetting.  I’ll go with moth wings.

Since moth wings appeared rather suddenly in the evolutionary big picture, etching their way into fossils without much foreshadowing, I think that moth wings are just the thing to describe what it feels like when my brain takes flight, or at least hovers a little, when it’s otherwise supposed to be grounded, its feet planted on this earth.

Did I mention the worst day?  The day I forgot to do something for a colleague, a simple something that I was supposed to do at 11 AM?  There was a reminder in my engagement calendar.  I did forget to put the reminder in the Outlook calendar on my computer, which would have alerted me like a guilty conscious just as I slipped up.

At 11:20, when I realized that I’d forgotten, it was too late.  (Didn’t those students know to wait 20 minutes for full professors to show up?  They left after 15).  I immediately went into damage control, calling offices, collecting a roster so I could send emails, and locating (within minutes) a phone directory so I could also call all students in the class I forgot to meet to make other arrangements. Fortunately, my colleague, to whom I confessed my faux pas via email, wrote back immediately and said to forget it.  She would do damage control when she got back.

After that, it was a downward spiral for my spirits and an upward spiral for those bright red moth wings.  They appeared, brighter than Rudolph’s nose, and hovered over my head.  If I had had time to look in a mirror, I would have seen them there, beacons of despair.  Were students dropping in and out of my office all day there to talk about term papers, or were they there to gape?

It’s not as if I never forgot anything before.  It’s not as if I never had a senior moment.  The most ironic of all senior moments came when I was rushing to deliver a lecture on, of course, Alzheimer’s Disease (“The Spirituality Thereof”) at a Unitarian church one state over.  I had given a more extensive version of the lecture to one church, and it had touted my message to such an extent that I was invited to do it again, only shorter.

The thing is this.  I am somewhat phobic about germs.  For example, I periodically soak my toothbrush in hydrogen peroxide, the way my mother taught me.  I wash my hands a lot.  You should see the tips of my fingers.  They’re like prunes, which is neither here nor there.

What is more to the point is the fact that the morning I was to get in the car and drive from Point A in Virginia to Point B in Tennessee to give my lecture, I grabbed a glass of water by the sink to take all the recommended vitamins for somebody my age.  I swallowed just as I realized that the hydrogen peroxide that I had soaked my toothbrush in overnight was now inside my tummy.

Short of rushing to the emergency room, I immediately ate a bowl of yogurt and hit the road.  Forget my health.  I had a commitment.  The worst effect, until I was able to purchase charcoal tablets hours later after I had done my duty, was a compulsion to gulp. I delivered my entire lecture as if I might vomit at any given moment.

Although I certainly lacked charm that morning, and the exceptional lecture turned into something a little strained, I thought it was sort of funny that I could lecture about Alzheimer’s Disease while suffering the ill effects of thoughtlessly imbibing hydrogen peroxide.  I didn’t get depressed.  If anything, I got a message from the cosmos to be humble.

Forgetting to go to my colleague’s 11 AM class while she was away at a conference, though, felt like forgetting not only the name of my first-born child but also like looking into the mirror and wondering who that middle-aged woman staring back at me is.  It made me wonder if a prescription for Aricept is called for or if I should find a clinical trial so some researcher with all of his or her marbles can put my brain in a vise or otherwise make good use of a transmission electron microscope.

I wallowed in ennui the rest of that fateful day, so bogged down in the black hole of my pitiful synapses, so flustered by my red moth wings, that I couldn’t leave my desk chair until I had sat there straight, except for a bathroom break, for eight more hours.  I used my time obsessively, catching up on every possible chore on sundry to-do lists that I might have overlooked or could possibly overlook in the near future.  On the bright side, I had remembered to teach my own class first thing that morning, though that was little consolation.

I went home after 7 PM, exhausted, and ate tempeh, a soy product.  A few hours later, I drank pomegranate wine.  All evening, despite the wholesome food, I never could feel better about my mental lapse, although around 8:04 PM I reminded myself that during my 21 years at my job I had forgotten very little.  I am, in fact, an overachiever, somebody who thinks she’s late if she doesn’t meet a deadline a week early.  Students marvel at how quickly I return papers with voluminous comments.

My fleeting positive thought that awful day, that bad brain day, was replaced, I will confess, by the negative prospect that any disease has to have a first step.  A misstep.  A sign that is a little more flamboyant than metaphorically red and imaginary moth wings.  The Sign.

Here goes:  Was I, I wondered as that day wore on and night fell heavy, turning into my mother?  My dear, sweet mother who first forgot one thing and then another and then another until she forgot South Carolina?

My mother, to give her credit, lives the Zen moment, oblivious of meetings and deadlines.  Her nursing home taxes her only twice a week, when she has to drop whatever she is doing and take baths.  I envy her bliss, her continuing joie de vivre despite late-stage Alzheimer’s.

So what if she is losing language?  We talk now more than she did when she made perfect sense (which is relative), and our mother-daughter bond has grown so tight that we share roles.  The two of us are two peas in a pod.  We sit on the side of her hospital bed and watch Hammy the Hamster videos and laugh and laugh.

If we are indeed two peas in a pod, does that mean that I will end up with the same disease as she, even if I eat lots of apples and do cardiovascular exercise and factor in all the rest that we’re supposed to do to reduce our changes of Alzheimer’s Disease (tempeh, laughter, red wine)?  And if I do, will I be able to be as graceful and as accepting as my mother is now?  I don’t think so.

Dear reader, I have her letters.  I have notes I took the last year she lived alone, and then with my brother, notes to chronicle her decline so I could gauge when to step in and exercise my power of attorney.  I can see with my mind’s eye, which still functions, her most haunting comment in one of the notes I took when her words made haunting sense:  “I felt like an idiot.”

Did I feel like an idiot, too, for forgetting to get up from my desk one morning at 11 AM to deliver a set of quizzes to a class waiting for me room across the hall?  Yes, I did.

And I don’t know if I’ll get over it.  Sure, I’ll prove to my colleague, who knows all about my mother, that I haven’t lost it.  I’ll continue to write profound comments on my students’ papers so they will think I’m smart.  When I space out in class, I’ll weave it into the lecture and make it a teachable moment.  What else?  I’ll buy pink sticky notes and plaster them on my office door to supplement my engagement calendar and computer program so I won’t forget important tasks.

What else? I’ll eat more oats and take more lunch breaks. We all know that people who leave their desks to go to lunch and mingle are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull, perhaps even dimwitted, boy.  Prayer helps too.

You know my engagement calendar, the one with the reminder of what I forgot to do at 11 AM one morning?  Right before I left for the day, before I went into a frenzy of crosschecking all unfinished tasks, I found it on my floor underneath a stack of memos printed out from emails and other documents related to a curriculum-planning project (right next to a stack of term papers).  My plan is great.  It maps various proficiencies and modes of learning according to semester and instructor and is not only color-coded but also cross-referenced and quantitatively endearing.

Just thinking about the time I spent meshing the schedules of the teaching faculty with projected needs and embedded proficiencies, all the while juggling teaching and service responsibilities, not to mention aged mother and teenaged son, is enough to make me tired.

In fact, maybe my mind is not slipping. I could just be tired.  I could be stressed by 12-hour workdays that seem increasingly necessary, either because my workload is increasing or I am becoming less the efficiency expert everybody thinks I am as they ask me to do more and more.  I could be stressed by life.

Then, again, a little voice inside my moth-winged head whispers, “Could this be it?”  One day, I’ll know the answer to that question, brain scan or no brain scan. Therein lies the rub.


Felicia Mitchell has taught English at Emory & Henry College since 1987. Her poems, essays, and scholarly articles have appeared widely in print and online publications, and she is a weekly columnist for the Washington County News (Abingdon, VA). The Cleft of the Rock, her most recent chapbook, was published in 2009 by Finishing Line Press. An online chapbook entitled There is No Map, with poems from a larger project about Alzheimer’s Disease, is available at The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Other poems from the project are included in Hospital Drive: A Journal of Words, Sounds, and Images published online by the University of Virginia School of Medicine.