Belling the Cat at Christmas Time

Since I was a boy, my mother said that I had rocks in my head. Now, after decades, the rocks are literally calcifying, obstructing signals to my brain. Early onset Alzheimer's will do that.
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Dr. Seuss once advised, "You've got brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose."

Not if you have rocks in your head.


Since I was a boy, my mother said that I had rocks in my head. Now, after decades, the rocks are literally calcifying, obstructing signals to my brain. Early onset Alzheimer's will do that.

I've always been a good rainmaker, the art of inducing precipitation, in this case generating puddles for the family through my writing and political consulting to pay bills, but of late the signals are crossing in a slow progression of this disease. While I was never an exemplary steward, I'm spending money today in odd ways, at times like a drunken sailor. At the directive of my doctors, I've turned all my credit cards over to my wife, Mary Catherine, who now views all my online bank and debit card statements daily to make sure nothing is awry. Surprises were occurring regularly, until I was forced to hand over a concealed American Express card that I had kept to maintain a at least a sense of self.

Recently, I've conceded to a smart phone application that allows family to track my whereabouts, like a heat-seeking missile, in the event I get lost, a regular occurrence at times. My Irish heart instructs me to laugh at this intrusion of privacy; try to find the humor in it. Alzheimer's has its droll moments if one learns to dance with this disease, rather than a frontal assault that is impossible to win. With this avant-guard tracking system, I feel like a character in the ancient fable about belling the cat -- a story about a council of mice trying to nullify the threat of a marauding feline. The stratagem is roundly applauded until one mouse asks the probing question: who will offer to place the bell on the cat? The mice all make excuses, a teachable moment about fundamental execution of a sage plan, a lesson about the gap between brainstorming and delivering on an impossible task.

"Been there, done that," my wife interjected in a family conference. "He's going to wear the bell!" Does "he" have a name? I asked later in agreeing to the tracking device.

The final straw for my wife was Christmas a few years ago. I'm a Clark Griswold, "Sparky" kind of dad; each Christmas Eve after church service the family has an intimate dinner at the Chatham Bars Inn, overlooking Chatham's pastoral inner harbor, then we ceremoniously watch Chevy Chase's Christmas Vacation. We still laugh so hard we cry -- aping all the iconic lines seconds before they are delivered.

I usually go overboard for Christmas, akin to Evil Knievel attempting to jump the Grand Canyon on a revved up motorcycle. This particular Christmas was no exception in holiday largesse, but early that Christmas Eve was a moment of unusual stillness for me. Listening to "Silent Night" on a speaker outsider a retail store at noon, I was suddenly flushed with the fear that I had no gifts, that everyone else in the family had gone Christmas shopping but me. I began to panic. So, I whipped out the American Express Gold, and within 15 minutes bought close to a thousand dollars of stuff that I had no recollection of buying -- the kind of crap nobody wants: shot glasses with Boston Celtic logos; paper plates and plastic forks; a doormat; medallions for my daughter with Tom Brady's picture. I wrapped the "presents" like a good elf, placed them under the tree.

To my horror, on Christmas morning, I realized that I had bought the mother lode weeks earlier, nice presents actually, and when it came time to open my inane offerings of late, I first got stares from my wife and kids, Brendan, Colleen and Conor, some humiliating laughs, a few loving cautions, and then a big hand from oldest son Brendan -- asking for the American Express card so that everything could be returned for a credit.

"Talk about pissing your money away. I hope you kids see what a silly waste of resources this was," my wife must have thought in her best impersonation of Clark's mother-in-law Frances after he had placed 250 strands of lights with 100 bulbs on each strand for a total of 25,000 light bulbs on the house, and none of them worked.

I myself was stunned. "If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn't be more surprised," I thought in a Clark Griswold moment.

Alzheimer's under the tree can make one laugh if you have the heart for it. Just listen for the ding of the bell...

Greg O'Brien's latest book is On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer's. He is also the subject of the short film, "A Place Called Pluto," directed by award-winning filmmaker Steve James, online at In 2009, he was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's. His maternal grandfather and his mother died of the disease. O'Brien carries a marker gene for Alzheimer's. For more information go to:

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