Driveway camping: an Alzheimer’s memory

Today I’m offering a memory from my unpublished memoir about our years dealing with Fred’s Alzheimer’s disease and other problems. This took place when he was still at home. Although his memory was fading, he had blessed moments of clarity. Tomorrow would have been our 36th wedding anniversary.

Our truck was the same as this, only blue. We gave it away after Fred stopped driving.

On a sunny August afternoon, I crawled into the shell on the back of our old Mazda pickup. In 12 years, I had never gone in there except to get something, the ridged truck bed bruising my knees. But now, sun-cooked and pooped from washing the new car, I opened the hatch, scooted toward the cab and lay back.

I had never noticed that the inside of the canopy was silver. I had also never noticed there were screened windows I could open for air. All this time I’d been thinking that someday, after Fred’s Alzheimer’s took him away, I would buy a nicer truck and camper like my parents used to have. This canopy was just the cover Fred had bought to protect the supplies he carried around for his tax preparation business.

Now I realized I already had a camper. It wasn’t fancy, but I could lie all the way down in it, and I could even sit up. Add an ice chest and a guitar and off I’d go.

Fred came out.

“I’m camping,” I said. Looking out at the coastal forest in which we lived, I announced that I might stay there indefinitely. I could bring my phone and laptop into the camper and put a big sign on the side of the truck: Writer on the Road. I felt like a kid who had found a special hiding place.

Fred sat on the tailgate. We talked about the truck, about how we had never camped together. We talked about how my friend Sherri and I used to sit on the tailgate of her father’s station wagon talking for hours and how I spent most of my free time at her house because we had too many rules at mine. Fred said they had no rules at his house. They could do anything they wanted.

We talked about my upcoming business trips, Fred’s need for care, the frustrations of Medicaid, what we might do in the future, and how I would live without his income. He got teary. “It’s not fair to you,” he said. “Just get rid of me.”

I placed my tanned hand on top of his white one. “No. It sucks, but I made a promise to take care of you, and I’ll stick to it.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have discussed finances with Fred. But he seemed to want to know in this unusually lucid moment. So I told him everything I knew, including my resolve to stay away from government funding as long as possible. He said he was worried about my future “when I’m not there.” So was I. But we had to take it one step at a time. And right now, I was having fun camping in our driveway. Perhaps I had gone completely insane. If so, it was fun.

My brother and I camped with our parents when we were kids. We all slept in a 13-foot Shasta trailer at first, with one of us kids suspended in the canvas bunk over the double bed and the other in a sleeping bag on the slippery bench seat in the dining area. In later years, Mike and I moved into the camper on my folks’ pickup. It was nicer than this, padded and paneled, with beds, cupboards and a refrigerator. Fred laughed as I explained that my folks had an intercom so we could talk to them, but when I got to whining about my little brother pestering me, they would shut it off. “Mom, Mike’s—” Click.

I’d sit with my head against the window and my transistor radio against my ear, singing along. In those days, I knew every song and artist on the playlist.

I inhaled the pine-scented air. Good times.

But I never kissed a handsome man in that camper. Now I planted a long, passionate smooch on Fred’s soft lips.

Good times.

Maybe I would keep this rig after all.

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Step One: Set Up the Tent

Thank God no one can see me, I think as I wrestle on my front lawn with a pile of poles and slippery cloth that any minute should spring upward into a dome-shaped tent. But it doesn’t. I’ve always hated the junipers that block my view of everything, but now I am grateful. After an hour, I have nothing but a pile of parts and sore, grass-stained knees.

I’ve never set up a tent before. With my first husband, John Muir reincarnated, I was always the helper, the one who held stuff while he sipped a beer with one hand and put up the tent with the other. I don’t know how he got it off the ground; he just did. Before I knew it, we were hammering stakes into the dirt and barbecuing rib-eyes on the roaring campfire. My specialty was washing the dishes.

Husband number two wasn’t much of a camper. Motel 6 was too rustic for him. But we did try it once. Again, I don’t know how the tent got up. I just remember falling off the air mattress all night and threatening to sleep in the truck if he didn’t start a fire to keep us warm.

So now, husband-free, here I sit surrounded by poles, plastic-cloth and useless directions. If they wrote them in English, e.g., insert the ridiculously long black pole into the black sleeve to the left of the door, stuff it all the way through and insert the ends into the i-hooks, I might get it. But no, it’s slide short tent pole TPOL-374BK through pole sleeve of corresponding color. Do the same with second tent pole TPOL-374BK. Then insert long-cross ridge pole CPOL-393GR through pole sleeve of corresponding color. Hello, all the poles are long and I have three colors of poles and two colors of sleeves. Insert ends onto pin-rings at base of tent and snap J-hooks over short tent poles. What’s a pin-ring? And what J-hooks? I don’t see any J-hooks. Hook them onto what anyway, the hard part of the pole or the stringy thing between the sections of pole?

Okay. I think I’ve got it right. I lift the whole pile of cloth and poles and realize I can’t get all the poles into their holes by myself. My arms aren’t long enough. As soon as I get one side, the other comes out. This is where I used to come in, I vaguely remember. I was the one who held stuff while the tent-maker went around sliding part A into part B. Zoop, zoop, zoop, dinnertime.

I look around. The neighbors are all at work. I’d be too embarrassed to ask the super-hunter across the street for fear he’d laugh at my cheap tent. The other neighbors wouldn’t know any more than I do.

Sweating and weary, I let my tent fall like a deflated Mylar balloon while I run into the kitchen for a beer. That part of the camping tradition I can do.

Now I have to figure out to get the tent back into the bag.