Opinion | Biff America: When time is cruel

Jeffrey "Biff" Bergeron, Summit Daily News
Jeffrey “Biff” Bergeron/Summit Daily News

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve got to try to be normal. I’m no good. I’ve got to get it done. I’ve got to keep normal. Now what, now what. Tell me. Where’s it coming from? I’m a wreck. It’s too hard.”

Those words were just a part of Calista’s internal dialog that, unbeknownst to her, was not internal. Those sentence fragments were uttered by a once accomplished woman whose brain was being damaged by dementia.

A few minutes earlier, she was having a conversation with her sister Donna — a slightly disjointed conversation, but a conversation nonetheless. When Calista began talking to herself, oblivious to her sister’s presence, Donna wrote down her words.

That was years ago, when Calista still recognized Donna as her sister.

Calista was a feminist before I knew what the word meant. Being born in 1943, she wasn’t the type to burn her bra or march in protest. Rather, she was a smart, pretty, hardworking woman who never, for an instant, doubted that she was equal or better than anyone of any gender.

She grew up in a world where even smart and ambitious girls might attend women-only secretarial college. After graduation, she lived at a women’s boarding house and worked as an executive secretary for the two owners of a successful manufacturing company. 

One owner became sexually obsessed with her. Calista, neither cowed nor coy, told her boss an emphatic “No!”

One day she came back to her apartment and her landlady told her she had let her uncle into her room to leave her a birthday gift. Calista opened a package of fancy underwear with a note left by her boss and noticed one of her nightgowns was missing. She confronted the owners the next day and was promptly fired. That was the world for many young women in the early ’60s.

What followed were other jobs, each with more responsibility than the last. There were also one or two businesses that she ran out of her home, then finally a position at the United States Agency for International Development on the Mongolia desk. Were that position to be filled today, a master’s degree or a Ph.D. would be required.

She retired at 65 with good health and a good pension.

About 10 years ago, she became more forgetful. Her inability to remember names and small details was covered well by her self-assuredness and nearly impossible optimism. It took a few years for her to be diagnosed. What followed was a slow but consistent cognitive decline. The last thing to leave her was her confidence.   

“I’ve got to get it done. I’ve got to keep moving. Not at all in very good shape. I’m not getting anywhere.”

I wish I could say that Calista’s condition improved or even remained static, but the truth is it worsened. The cards that nature and nurture (a few head injuries) had dealt that remarkable woman were brutal. The only bright spot is she has an amazing husband. A husband who has loved her since high school, who takes wonderful care of her with a saint-like patience. She has children who see her as she is, while remembering who she was. She has Donna, who loves her with a sister’s love even though her recognition is not returned.

I began typing this column with no idea how I would finish it. It’s convenient to have some sort of destination, message or meaning. It is therapeutic to leave the reader, and writer, with some sort of hope, clarity or closure. Sorry.

There is a sliver of light in the mental darkness that has become that once amazing woman’s life. There is the fact that there are still spouses who take “for better or for worse” literally. Sisters who reach out to sisters who don’t remember them as sisters. And children who love their mother as she was and is.

And for the rest of us, this is just another reminder that every day is a blessing and every clear thought a gift.

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