It was the summer of 2014 and I was meeting an old friend for lunch on Edmonton’s South Side.
But he was running late.
Ed Black and I did this once or twice a year. It was our time to catch up on where we were with our lives, the scoop on who got married, split up, croaked … and the gossip on old schoolmates who’d run off to some faraway land. The usual.
For 10, 20, 30-minutes, I waited. No Eddie. And so I called his home. No answer. Hmmm. Where the heck was he??
Ed never did show and I ate alone.
It was so uncharacteristic of my former soccer teammate from Campbellton, New Brunswick not to keep his word — even to phone to say he couldn’t make it.
A complete mystery, for sure.
Perhaps something had come up. What was going on here? Had Ed been in an accident? Or had he forgotten about our meeting because he had too much on his mind? The possibilities kept ping-ponging in my head.
Unknown to me, Eddie’s brain was being attacked by a deadly, slow-moving disease …
When I finally contacted Ed, a few days later, I didn’t bring up that he’d been a no-show. Neither did he, strange enough. It was as though he wasn’t even aware.
Something weird was going on.
Clue #1. We rescheduled — but incredibly, the same thing happened! Ed was again a no-show. Wow! What were the chances of that happening?
Clue #2. What’s going on here?, I wondered. Did I not get the dates right?
Was I losing my mind?
Don’t mean to sound insensitive, but Ed was losing his. The man was facing what health workers would call a ‘degeneration of brain function.’ And it was irreversible; things would only get worse, not better.
Eddie also wasn’t returning my phone calls, and that wasn’t like him either. The man had too much class to deliberately communicate with silence.
I finally reached him on the phone and asked point-blank, “What’s going on with you?” Ed said he was sorry … although his apology came without an explanation. Clue #3.
I let it go and we set yet another date. This time, Ed kept his word. He showed up right on time.
MEET EDDIE …
It was a great get-together — finally! We spent quality time at a family restaurant just up the street from where he lived. Ed and I shared a few jokes [some clean] and reminisced about how cool it was to grow up in the Maritimes.
We were both fond of our teenage years in Campbellton, especially playing indoor soccer for the Speed Demons. Ed had been a forward on our second line. He had a hard shot and played with a lot of heart.
The Speed Demons were the league ‘powerhouse,’ capturing more than their share of championships. How exciting that was for us kids, holding the league trophy high, our names in the local paper and all that. It was self-esteem building at a most impressionable time in our lives.
It gave us the feeling that little ‘ol Campbellton was a place where everybody was somebody, and we were part of that.
I could not fathom how memories as powerful as those could ever slip away. But as I was about to discover, sometimes they do …
Ed and I spoke with deep appreciation about the care and guidance from our coach, local radio announcer Don Hume. At the time, we had no idea that belonging to the Speed Demons would be a glue that would hold us together.
Our luncheon date seemed like 20-minutes — but it was much longer, probably close to two hours.
Eddie also played basketball for the Campbellton High School team. Check out this photo:
Let’s move ahead half a century …
Ed had just retired from his job with the purchasing department at the City of Edmonton where he’d been for decades. He worked in an office tower close to the Law Courts Building downtown where my radio station, 630 CHED, had a small news bureau.
We occasionally ran into each other in the spacious lobby of the courthouse. Ed had a quick wit, sometimes introducing me as, “Have you met my father?”
It was good clean fun and the line always brought smiles.
FADED MEMORIES …
Ed and I spent many hours at his small apartment in the downtown area, near Jasper Avenue and 124th Street. We chatted non-stop at his kitchen table, enjoying — of all things — pop, juice and potato chips and going on about the ‘good old days.’
I’m told that those getting on in age have a tendency to do that.
Ed had moved into his apartment a couple of years earlier after his marriage went south. I could tell he missed his two children [now adults] — and his ex. That’s right. Although the two had their differences, Eddie never put down his former wife, not in front of me anyway. Nice to see that.
It appeared as though Ed had moved into the apartment just days previous. That’s because some moving boxes remained stacked, unopened and covered with dust.
Only his small kitchen seemed to be set up.
It was never easy to leave Eddie’s place. “I’ve gotta get a move on,” I’d say, getting up off the chair. Ed always pleaded, “Don’t go … you’re in no rush.” My friend wanted company.
Ed longed to go on about the past but, oddly enough, he didn’t talk much about the future. There were no dreams of retiring to Florida, to a cabin in the woods … or running off to Australia with a hot model. None of that.
Was it a sign of aging … or something more sinister? It’s convenient to give Ed’s medical challenges technical descriptors such as ‘dementia’ and ‘Alzheimer’s Disease.’ Labels aside, the poor fellow was simply forgetting so much, so fast. There was no getting around it. The man was having cognitive issues.
Ed began spending more time with his sister-in-law whose husband, Ed’s older brother, had passed away at the age of 75 following a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. This wonderful woman — a quick wit in her own right — was far more than a relative. She was a loving caregiver. An angel.
ON THE MOVE …
It wasn’t long before Ed moved to a special care facility smack in the centre of a new, upscale neighbourhood in North Edmonton. There, he could come and go and have visitors.
I was one of many.
The fact that Ed was now living in that ‘special home’ made me want to see him more … take him out for drives, hang out and pig out at a Mary Brown’s restaurant, that sort of thing.
Here’s a :17 video of Ed in the Edmonton subdivision of Lewis Estates in the west end of Edmonton, where I live. He’s walking Timbit, my half-Yorkshire terrier.
The video was shot on 29 May 2016. To view in better definition, Click ‘SHARE’ [top right], then ‘ORIGINAL’ or ‘MP4.’
[Note: Timbit died suddenly of congestive heart failure on Sunday, 22 April 2018. He was ten.]
Everyone at the care facility loved Ed, especially the female staff he vowed to marry one day. “But I’m married,” they pleaded. “Really? Haven’t you had enough of that guy …?”
On Ed’s wrist was a bulky, watch-like thingy — a GPS tracker. The staff could determine Ed’s whereabouts ‘in real time’ simply by watching a computer screen. Imagine that. And I thought electric typewriters and carbon paper were amazing.
As good as the care was, Ed longed to be back at his old apartment. And I could see why. Some of the ‘residents’ in his new digs were near zombies, right out of it. Sorry, but the politically-correct term isn’t coming to me right now.
I felt Ed didn’t belong in that place and I know he saw things the same way. He often asked, “Why the f— am I here? Get me out of this f—ing place!”
My friend was becoming very frustrated …
His new home was a bit like a clean prison with friendly guards who spoke in foreign accents. Staff hawkeyed everyone who came and went. Doors were locked electronically. Surveillance cameras were everywhere — except in the bedrooms and bathrooms, and even that I wasn’t sure about.
I dropped by now and then to take Ed for a drive; sometimes for a meal, other times to my home in the west-end, to a park … or to take my drone for a spin. He enjoyed listening to pop music as we drove, rapidly tapping on the dash to the beat of a song that grabbed him.
Ed loved music. He could have been a DJ.
MEETING AN NHL HALL OF FAMER …
I once brought Ed out to meet his hockey idol, Glenn Hall, a long-retired goaltender who played for many years in the National Hockey League, suiting up for three teams: the Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues.
Glenn lived alone on a farm just outside of town.
The two hit it off. We plunked ourselves down on big leather chairs in Glenn’s living room. The man the hockey world knows as ‘Mr. Goalie’ also treated us to a beer. Ahhh. Nothing like a cold brew on a warm summer day.
Ed suddenly pounced to his feet and announced, “Glenn,” looking his way to get his attention, “… this is how you stopped those pucks!” He then jumped around like a jackrabbit on speed, pretending to kick out shots.
It was quite a display.
Glenn looked my way, shook his head and smiled. Bet he hadn’t seen a goalie clinic in his living room before.
NHL All-Star Glenn Hall embracing Ed – 2016. Click to enlarge. [Second photo by Author]
I followed Glenn to the kitchen. “My bud has dementia,” I whispered. “I figured that,” he said, adding, “Stan also has dementia …”
Stan Mikita had been a star forward with the Black Hawks in the 1960s. Stan and Glenn were more than teammates. Glenn was best man at #21’s wedding.
Oh. This is important. As we made our way down Glenn’s winding, paved driveway, Ed remarked that Mr. Goalie was one of the NHL greats. I agreed. My comment was that we all have greatness in us but most don’t realize it.
OFF TO THE ROCKIES …
On a beautiful day in June 2016, Ed and I took off to the [Canadian] Rocky Mountains. That was a fun trip.
We drove here and there, even built a small campfire near the Athabasca River with the beautiful snow-capped mountains in the background. The sun was shining bright, the fire crackling and Ed was at peace.
So was I.
[There are more Rocky Mountain photos at the end of the post …]
FROM BAD TO WORSE …
As Ed’s disease progressed, the peace he so enjoyed in the Rockies was replaced with confusion and anger.
His condition worsened. He was then moved to a new location — a newly-built seniors complex in St. Albert, just north of Edmonton.
Here, Eddie shared a locked ward with about two dozen men, all older than him. Hell, Ed was only 68 and there he was, in a damn dementia unit. Like that makes sense …
His neighbours were a helicopter pilot, police officer, engineer, truck driver, and so on. They were white, black and in between. Alzheimer’s Disease does not discriminate.
Ed and I continued to meet. We went for drives [and for ice-cream at Costco, nearby] … although his new residence had more rigid procedures in place. For example, Ed now had to be signed in and out. Staff also wanted to know who I was, my cell number, where I was taking him and when I’d be back.
As friendly and professional as the staff was, Ed still didn’t like this new place …
When we returned from an outing, pulling up in the parking lot, Eddie always asked the same question: “Who are we visiting?” And I said, “No one, Ed. This is your home now …”
Eddie pleaded for me to drive him to his apartment downtown. That wasn’t happening.
Whenever I left his 4th floor-unit, Ed trailed behind me to the keyed-entry door, always pleading to leave. It was heartbreaking to hear the electronic ‘click’ sound of the heavy door closing, glance over my shoulder and see Ed standing there. You have no idea.
Ed may have been losing his mind, but not his feelings.
The modern complex had everything one could ask for … dedicated staff, nourishing meals, a modern clean room, nice view, terrific facilities, movies, and bus trips. To top it off, old friends and family members dropped in to see ‘residents’ from time to time.
I believe Eddie got far more visitors than most.
He spoke highly of a young, pretty woman who came to see him and he showed me her photograph. “Christ,” I said, “Ed, that’s your daughter!”
Eddie also vowed to marry the woman who faithfully came to visit him every Thursday. That was his former wife. “She still loves you,” I remarked. Ed’s response: “What’s her name? …”
One day I asked Eddie, “Do you know my name?” “Zeke!” he quickly announced in an attempt to throw me off because, truth is, he wasn’t sure who I was. Sometimes he knew my name. But often he didn’t. The poor guy was faking it.
Ed was good at hiding the fact he had cognitive issues. It’s my guess many Alzheimer’s patients play that game, at least in the beginning. If I ever end up like that, I’ll probably do that too.
On most days, Eddie remembered who I was … with a little help. “Hello,” I’d say, with a handshake. “Byron here.” “BYRON CHRISTOPHER!” he shouted to let me know he hadn’t forgotten.
“And how is Donnie Hume?,” Eddie added, “… I haven’t seen him in a while.” Ed always brought up our coach’s name. “Does he still work at the Post Office?” Don retired decades ago.
THE SPEED DEMONS
A special book with more than 200 photographs paid tribute to the Speed Demon Soccer Club and Ed had a copy of it on a table in his room, right beside a window.
The hard-cover publication was always on display.
We sometimes sat on the edge of his bed slowly going through the book, page after page.
“That’s Allan,” Ed said, pointing to a black and white photo of his younger brother who’d left Campbellton and settled in Ontario. “He came to see me the other day.”
“Ed,” I countered, “Allan died years ago …”
“What’s this fellow’s name?” I asked, pointing to someone standing alongside Ed in a high school graduation photo from Campbellton. I could see the wheels were slowly turning in Ed’s head. “Let me think,” he said, “hang on … hang on” … [buying time]. He then began to go through the alphabet. “‘A’ … ‘B’ … BRIAN!“
Eddie was quick to remember players who’d scored a pile of goals for us. Brian, Art, Ray and Bob were some of the players that come to mind. All forwards, of course.
The feisty forward on our second line began naming just about every player in those old team photos. But as time went on, Ed knew fewer and fewer of them … until his old teammates had transformed into strangers without names.
While in Ed’s unit at the senior centre, I occasionally pulled out my cell phone and made calls to some former teammates. They were tickled to hear his voice. Those phone calls became a memorial lifeline, if you will, to what had been a very special time in Ed’s life.
“I want to know something,” he’d say to whoever was on the other end. To get their attention, Ed would deliberately pause. “… Are you naked??”
As the months passed, I could see that Ed’s memory was getting worse.
“Here’s a photo of goaltender Glenn Hall,” I said, pointing to an autographed snapshot on top of Ed’s dresser. “Where’d you get that?” I queried. “I was just talking to him the other day … he wanted some tips on how to play goal.”
Not true, of course. Glenn, who hung up his skates in the early 1970s, turned 87 in November 2018.
Ed had been a valuable soccer team player. You won’t find his name among the top scorers … but when it came to team leadership, Eddie was our unofficial captain. He kept everyone loose. Rough up a smaller player and expect to get implanted on the boards on the next shift. That was Eddie. He stood up for his mates.
Ed stood up in life, period.
I recall how dismayed he was that some City of Edmonton contracts were — in his view — not quite above board. He couldn’t get over that politics was at play. Dementia or not, Ed and ‘monkey-business’ were just not compatible. Not playing by the rules wasn’t the way Eddie was brought up.
In this day and age when people are trained like rats to adore the system and ‘play the game,’ Ed didn’t. He remained a rebel hero who hadn’t sold out. Ya gotta like that.
Even though Ed’s memory was going, his heart was strong — especially for causes and ‘doing the right thing.’ He once asked what I was up to. “I’m working on a story on Bobby Steeves.” Steeves is the mentally-challenged man in Campbellton who was tormented without mercy over the years … because he was simple and gay. “That’s bullshit how people treated him,” retorted Ed. What jerks …”
I’d been warned that those suffering from Alzheimer’s could easily become — how does one put this tastefully? — sexually aroused. Sure enough. Ed and I were in his unit at the senior’s complex, looking out the window, when he spotted two young women on the sidewalk below. “See those girls?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he went on to say that one was crazy over him — and that they’d actually gone on a few dates.
It was all BS, of course. But not to Eddie.
“Ed,” I remarked, “you’re a worse pervert than me!” I was joking. Okay, maybe half-joking. But Eddie wasn’t.
I went along with his tall tales. We all did. It was the right thing to do.
Ed often apologized for not remembering things. “I think I’m losing my mind,” he once said. The only retort I could think of was, “I hope not … if that happens you’ll be appointed to the Canadian Senate.”
DEMENTIA AND ALZHEIMER’S
Is there a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s? The experts say there is. They say dementia is an umbrella term for a set of symptoms including impaired thinking and memory.
According to the website alzheimers.net, it’s a term often used to describe the cognitive decline of aging.
This is how some in the medical community see it: When someone is diagnosed with dementia, they’re being diagnosed with a set of symptoms. It’s like when somebody has a sore throat. Their throat is sore but it’s not known what’s causing the problem. It could be a number of things: allergies, strep throat, or a common cold. Similarly, when someone has dementia they’re experiencing symptoms without knowing what the actual problem is.
It’s believed that Alzheimer’s Disease causes as many as 50 to 70% of all dementia cases.
A big difference between the two is that Alzheimer’s is not reversible. It is degenerative and — so far — there’s no cure.
Notes around Ed’s unit at the senior’s centre in St. Albert remind him of his son’s name, the names of his daughter and grandchildren. Spread out on a table are photographs from camping trips, ski trips, sky-diving … and his treasured book on the soccer club in Campbellton.
Assembled by family members, it’s a poignant collection of souvenirs and signs of the rich life he lived.
I spotted some things in Ed’s room that weren’t so pleasant … including a hole about knee-level punched in the drywall. “What the hell happened here?” I asked, pointing to the foot-size puncture.
“Don’t know how that got there,” he replied, very matter of fact. I don’t think Eddie was bullshitting me. He had no short-term memory. Zip. He didn’t know who had visited him yesterday … but could recall details of a soccer game half a century ago.
It’s now at a point where Eddie doesn’t remember me at all …
When I visited him on Sunday evening, December 3, 2017, he didn’t look my way when I walked into the dining hall. My old friend was having dinner [‘supper’ to Maritimers] at a table with three men.
Ed wore two baseball caps, one on top of the other — another sign that something wasn’t right with him.
I waited 20 minutes, then joined Eddie at his table, pulling up a chair and punching his left shoulder. It’s my way of saying hello at times. “How are things, Ed?”
“Want to head down to your room when you’ve finished eating?” “No.” A retired police officer, sitting to Ed’s right, interjected, “How do you know this man, Ed?” Again, no response. Some might describe Ed’s behaviour as catatonic-like; he was certainly not engaged that day.
I explained that Eddie and I grew up in a small town in northern New Brunswick …
I punched Ed’s shoulder a second time. “Don Hume says hello.” Eddie finally spoke. “Who’s he?” Wow. Clue #300.
Thirty minutes later, I was on my way home and walking down the hallway that led to the locked door. This time Eddie did not follow. I glanced back and he was still sitting at the table with his friends. He seemed to be off in another world, and I guess he was.
About a week later, I went around to see Ed again. He seemed a bit more ‘with it’ … but still not engaged.
We plunked ourselves down in big chairs in a visitor’s room at the end of the hall. We chatted for half an hour or so.
“How are you feeling, Ed?” “Stupid,” he replied.
And I replied, “You’re not stupid, buddy. Your memory is slipping — but it’s not your fault. You’re doing the best you can.” I reminded Eddie that more people loved him than he’ll ever know.
Ed said nothing. He may have been trying to let that sink in, I really couldn’t tell.
“Do you know my name?” I asked. Ed looked out the window, waited a couple of seconds, then simply said, “No.”
The chairs were comfortable; the topic not so much …
“Do you remember the town where you were born?” “No — and it’s for a reason,” he said, sitting up straight to make a point. “Some people went this way,” he said, motioning with his hands, “and some people went that way …”
I could see that Ed was uneasy, but how could he not be? His hard drive was being deleted by a slow-moving disease … and there wasn’t a damn thing anybody could do about it.
“Do you know what I do for a living?” I asked. “No.” “I’m a journalist. I report the news and write stories …” “Wow,” he said. Suddenly I had Eddie’s attention. “I’ve just done a blog story on you, Ed.” He looked my way and smiled. “That’s nice. Thank you …”
You may wonder why I continue to visit Ed when he doesn’t know who I am. It’s because I know who he is.
In time, Ed will forget me, his family and everyone he’s ever known. I’m told he will eventually forget how to do basic, essential things such as swallowing. His body will start shutting down, like curtains drawn at a theatre.
I’ll then get a call from a family member who’ll tell me that my dear friend is safely on the Other Side. That’s when Ed’s memory will return and, I’m told, he’ll be more alive than any of us.
There’s a happy ending to this story after all.
Here’s a short video clip of Ed on a pedestrian bridge over the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton. The man sure likes to whistle — and loves to dance. This was taken on June 15, 2016, when Ed was living in his first group home, the one in North Edmonton.
To view the clip in high definition, click on ‘SHARE’ [top right], then click on either ORIGINAL or MP4. Wait for it to load. It runs 18 seconds.
Here’s a reflective tune from country singer Allan Jackson … ‘The Older I Get’ … [available on iTunes]. Runs 3:50.
June 2016. Ed in Edmonton’s River Valley. Nothing beats the sound of a crackling fire. Click to enlarge. [Photo by Author]
Saturday, May 19, 2018 …
It was late Saturday afternoon, May 19, 2018 and Ed and I sat on a couch in the dining room of his retirement complex, watching television. On TV was a recorded program, part of the pre-game show for a Stanley Cup playoff game between Washington and Tampa Bay.
All the other residents were eating. But Ed chose not to, and it appeared he had been doing that for a while. The man had lost considerable weight since our previous meeting. I don’t think he weighed more than 100 pounds.
Eddie did not have a lot to say. His eyes never left the television, partly because it was an awkward moment. Ed was with someone he no longer knew. It was as though a stranger had sat down beside him on the bus.
I didn’t test my old friend by asking if he knew who I was. When our eyes met, I knew the answer. Asking would only present a problem for him.
Ed did comment on all the goals that were being scored — as though they had just happened. What we were watching was a recorded feature about a player who’d scored a lot of goals over a period of many games. Ed hadn’t picked up on that, not that it was important.
I went along with his excitement of seeing a player score so many goals in just minutes. “Look, he’s done it again!”
After we small-talked for 10 minutes or so, I was on my way. I bid Ed farewell and we shook hands. His handshake was still firm. So that hadn’t changed.
I promised Ed I’d see him again. He looked my way and said, “Thank you.” He was losing his facilities, but not his manners.
Saturday, July 7, 2018 …
Ed sat alone in a chair against the far wall of the dining room, his eyes glued to a wall-mounted TV. He was taking in a Hollywood action flick.
I pulled up a chair and sat down next to him. Ed glanced my way for all of half a second, said nothing, then returned to the movie.
We watched the show together without saying a word.
After ten minutes or so, I broke the silence. “What have you been up to?” “Fuck all,” he said, “… fuck all.” Ed’s eyes never left the television.
“Get out much?” I interrupted. “Yes, I do. All the time,” he said without looking my way, “I go to the other side of that wall,” pointing to the wall that splits the dining room in half.
I knew then and there where this was going.
“Don Hume says hello,” I added. Ed responded, “Don Humes … Don Humes …” as though he was trying to place his old soccer coach, and I’m sure he was. In an attempt to cover for a complete memory loss, he added, “Don should be coming by … where has he been?”
I told Ed that Don Hume — who lives several thousands of miles away in New Brunswick — was ‘busy.’ That seemed to satisfy him.
I gave Eddie a New Brunswick calendar — a new 2019 calendar — still wrapped in cellophane. He wasted no time puncturing the wrapping to check out the beautiful images. The photo he studied most intently was that of a lighthouse not far from his home in Campbellton.
Ed remained quiet.
We got back to watching the movie … with Ed shaking his head every now and then — in frustration. “I told him not to do that!” he shouted, pointing to gunman who’d just blown away two or three people, maybe 20. Typical Hollywood BS. My old friend was not only watching a movie, he was involved, captivated. Like a child.
There were four other men in the dining room, but only one I recognized; I recall joking with him. This time there was no joking, no smiles. The man looked right through me and said nothing.
“Remember me?” I asked. He slowly shook his head. The blank look on his face screamed ‘no.’
In the two months I’d been away, the gentleman had really gone downhill.
After 45 minutes, I bid Ed farewell, assured him that I’d be back but he was too wrapped up in his movie to pay any mind. And so I walked down the long hall to the locked door.
Oh. There were three newcomers in the dining room. One sported a T-shirt that read, “Just My Luck.”
It meant that at least three ‘residents’ have left the ward since my last visit. Chances are they’re now in a hospice or a grave somewhere.
And so it goes.
[Video courtesy of John Bourque]
MY LAST VISIT WITH ED
It was Sunday afternoon, 30 December 2018 — a cold day with drifting snow — when I went around to see Ed.
The visit was a huge disappointment. Ed has digressed to the point where he now does not know anyone, not even his own kids. Hell, he doesn’t know who he is.
I walked into his room to see him standing by the window. I said, “Hi Ed.” He turned, mumbled something and walked past me and out into the hallway.
I’d arrived with a custom-made ‘street sign’ to honour the man, which I put on the wall near his TV.
I found my friend in the dining room, walked up to him and said, “So long, Ed, I’m leaving” and extended my hand for a handshake. Ed did too, but it wasn’t for a handshake. His fingers touched my hand, then he quickly pulled his hand back and turned away.
This is not how I want to go.
The cool cover image [the three trees with diminishing leaf coverage] courtesy of Activebeat.
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