This is a guest blog piece by Jorge Cordero, a friend of Jim’s from his first years in the Air Force. They have a bond that nothing can break….not even Alzheimer’s Disease.
A few years back I was given the news that my good friend Jim Garner had been diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer’s. It was agonizing to receive the news but I was not surprised as I knew Jim’s Mom suffered from the same disease while we were stationed in Germany in the late 80’s. I had lost Jim’s contact information and the only e-mail address I had was from work and I knew he was no longer employed. I found Karen’s Blog as one of our Air Force buddies posted it on Facebook. After going through Karen’s blog and crying as I was reading I knew I had to get in touch with George Pacheco, our buddy from our days in Bremerhaven Germany. I called George and alerted him to Karen’s Blog. Another call came an hour later and now the two of us are crying on the phone. How could this happen? It is Jim Garner, the athlete, the star, the rock, our friend.
George and I knew of Jim’s diagnosis a while back but we really did not understand it. We didn’t know it would progress to his current state. One thing was for sure, he and I were going to see Jim and we were going sooner rather than later. No more postponing…well maybe by a month and a half. You see, I’m a defense contractor in Colorado and George is Government Civilian in Georgia working for the Air Force…it’s not easy to get our schedules synched. I had a trip to the Middle East and George had a high-level inspection coming his way. But we managed and on my return flight from Qatar I stopped in Virginia to see my good friends Jim, Karen and their beautiful kids Frances and Brad. George flew in on the same day and off we were to spend time with our buddy. This is my account of this emotional visit.
First, Jim could not have a better care giver, advocate, wife, partner, and friend than Karen. She’s as strong of a woman as it gets. I’m so proud of her.
I flew in to Virginia on the morning of 31 August, my friend George was flying in in the afternoon. The plan was for me to pick him that afternoon and then go to Jim’s house. During the day I was communicating with Karen of the plan when she suggested that I pick Jim first go to the airport and surprise George. What a great idea! I will do that and surprise George…except I was counting on George’s support when we saw Jim for the first time. Who was going to be there? Karen was out with the kids and she called Jim and gave him instructions. I was scared to see Jim for the first time in 6 years. I’ve had a little practice because my wife’s Dad suffered from Dementia, but still I was scared to see Jim. What if he didn’t recognize me…what if?
I drove to Jim’s and knocked on the door. Jim opened the door with a big ol’ smile…’Hey, how are you Jorge’? I was relieved, gave him a big hug and off we went to the airport. On the way to the airport, Jim was talkative and telling me about the different places as we were driving by. You could tell he had difficulty at times remembering certain details. I didn’t care, I was with my buddy and we were on our way to get the other. At the airport we met George, it was the first time the three of us were together since Jim visited us in Colorado as a birthday gift from Karen since their wedding. That night we went out to dinner and while at the restaurant we reminisced about our days in Bremerhaven,Germany. We chatted with the kids and joked about the fun times in Europe. There also was truly the first time when I noticed Jim’s deterioration. He was struggling with the menu. He couldn’t tell what one of the items was. He turned to Brad and asked him, ‘what is this’? Brad said, ‘it’s grilled chicken.’ I started to get a clear picture of Jim’s condition. We went on with dinner, remarkably Jim could remember details and names of people we were stationed with in the late 80’s. George and I couldn’t remember, but Jim did. George and I looked at each other in disbelief. How can he remember those details but not what he did earlier that day? Later on Karen, George and I discussed this. Karen told us Jim’s short term memory is what has a taken a hit. This was proved once again the next day when were scheduled to go golfing.
That morning Karen asked Jim if he remembered what he was going to do. Jim could not remember. Karen reminded him that he was golfing. She asked him if he remembered who he was golfing with. He answered, ‘with Jorge.’ Karen asked, ‘who else?’ Jim answered, ‘the other guy.’ He couldn’t remember George’s name. This was a theme throughout our visit.
Golfing was great, it was like muscle memory would take over and Jim would hit those great, smooth drives down the center of the fairway…unfortunately he would lose track of which one was his ball. This disease sucks! One thing I noticed was that every time the beverage cart would come around, Jim would turn down anything to drink. It was a hot, humid day and he refused a drink. By the third time I kept thinking that he had to be thirsty so I went ahead and bought him a bottle of water, he downed the whole thing in one gulp. I was mad at myself because I should have known better. As we were unloading the clubs from the car I noticed he had purposely put his water bottle in the trunk of the car. I asked him if he wanted it and he said no. The bottle was full and cold and it was a hot and humid day…I should have taken the bottle myself and put in the golf cart, but didn’t make too much of it. Later after I noticed how thirsty he was, I felt guilty not grabbing his water bottle.
After we got our golf cart and were getting ready to head out to the first tee he took out a brand new glove and a sleeve of balls from his bag and laid them next to him. By the time we made it to the first tee and the folks behind us took our picture, I noticed Jim had a very old glove on, which is ok but this one had a hole so big his thumb was sticking out of it. I asked him if he wanted to use the new glove he took out and he said no. If you look closely to the picture of the three of us standing with our clubs, you can almost see it. I knew what was happening but didn’t make a big deal out of it. Throughout the round I kept seeing him taking yet another new glove out. By the end of the round he had three brand new gloves out…he never wore any of the new ones. Again I knew better and didn’t say anything.
In another instance I let him drive the cart, on two different occasions he could not differentiate from the gas and the brake pedals. He tried to get the golf cart going by pressing the brake pedal and I could see he couldn’t figure out why the cart was not moving. I very calmly told him ‘it’s the other one Jim.’ I thought to myself there was a good reason he had given up driving and it also reminded me that Maria’s Dad was in two different car accidents before he was diagnosed with Dementia. Then I wondered if Maria’s Dad was already exhibiting traits of the disease and no one knew. I was glad to know Jim had given up driving and knowing that he was safer and the people around him as well. He would never forgive himself if he hurt someone.
After golfing we went to Fudruckers for lunch and I knew already he could have a hard time reading the menu (I had noticed it the night before at dinner), and he did. You could tell he couldn’t decide what to have because he couldn’t process reading and assigning meaning. I helped him decide by offering choices and he settled on a grilled Chicken Salad. During lunch we were talking and you know how proud he is of the kids. We were talking about the kids’ activities and what they were involved with. At one point he said…’and my daughter, what’s my daughter’s name?’ I just casually said ‘Frances’ and didn’t make a big deal out of it. To me it was important to help him through all of those lapses without him knowing that I was doing it.
During the 2 days we were there he suggested four or five times going by Gary Cramer’s office to say hello. Only problem was we were there Sunday, and Monday was Labor Day. Gary was not going to be at work. I again mentioned to Jim each time that Gary probably would not be at work as it was Sunday…or Monday when he brought it again. He didn’t remember that we had the same conversation several times. I just went with the flow.
We had such a great time with Jim, just like we always did. It was special and it was necessary. He needed it, Karen needed it, George and I needed it. Karen knew her husband would be taken care of and looked after during this short time. I think we gave her a little relief, even if it was for a few hours. I’m glad we had the opportunity to share a few days with Jim. Hope we get to do it again soon.
Every trip comes to an end, this one was very emotional and one that we were not prepared for. As we walked out to the porch to say our goodbyes, George gave Jim a hug and told him that he loved him. Jim started to cry. I think he knew that the next time we saw each other he would have a harder time remembering who we are. George started to cry as he was hugging our buddy. I was trying to do my best to fight the tears but seeing Jim and George crying was too much for me…too much for Karen. All four of us were crying because this disease is taking our friend, but most importantly is taking Karen’s husband, Frances and Brad’s Dad. As I write this I still fight the tears but I also have a great memory of my friend. As George and I returned back to our homes,
George put together a memento of our round of golf with Jim. Each one of us has a framed scorecard of our round of golf with pictures of us at the course. Mine is in my office right in front of me where I get to look at Jim’s big smile all day long. I loved the time with my friend. We love you Jim! I’m thankful Jim has such a strong woman in Karen as his partner, care giver, advocate, Mom of his children and his soul mate. Karen you are God-sent. Love you guys.
One more comment, I remember when you, George and I were discussing the finances and Jim’s retirement paycheck and how it was divided (disability vs retirement). He patiently listened to us talking about it but when we thought something didn’t add up, he got worried. I could tell in his demeanor. I remember reading in your blog that he knows what’s going on and how frustrating it can be for him when he can’t remember something…he knows. He gets frustrated…he knew something was not right but didn’t have a way to help…I could see fear in his face. At one point, and I don’t know if you heard him, he said…’please help her.’ It was like he was telling us…’I can’t help and I know I can’t help, but you and George can.’ I know it is devastating to him. It is important for George and I to help you in any way we can. If you ever have a question regarding the military and the retirement, we’re here for you. Jim asked us to help you…and we will!