Frankie is disappearing right before my eyes. Day by day, week by week, month by month, he is fading away.
The time is coming when there won’t be anything left of him. This may be in a year or two, or it may take longer. No one can tell. When that time comes, there may be a body with respiration and a heartbeat, but my friend Frankie will be gone.
Right now he is still Frankie — but just barely. He is no longer sure what an egg is, or an apple. Mention a lifelong friend that he hasn’t seen for awhile and he’ll draw a blank. Or he might say, “That name kind of rings a bell.”
Frankie is suffering from what his doctors call “a progressive Alzheimer’s-like disease.” Apparently you have to be dead before they can tell if you really had Alzheimer’s.
The terminology might matter to the doctors, but it doesn’t to Frankie or his family and friends. The only thing that matters is that at age 60, Frankie is rapidly losing contact with the world.
I grew up with Frankie. We sat beside each other in ninth-grade algebra, belonged to the same Boy Scout troop, went on dates together.
Frankie doesn’t remember any of this.
A week or so ago I showed Frankie a picture of himself. It was taken in my living room last summer.
“Who is that, Frankie,” I asked him.
He held the picture and stared at it. “I don’t know. It looks somewhat familiar.”
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Frankie had it all. Tall, bright, funny, he was a championship-level golfer and a super salesman. He had a house at the beach, a pretty wife and a small chain of clothing stores. He had it made.
Then one day Frankie was sitting in a restaurant with a friend. He picked up a salt shaker and looked at it with a frown.
“I know what this doggone thing is,” he said. “but I just can’t remember the name of it.”
That was the beginning and it has been all downhill since. He lost his wife and he lost his business. Then the disease — whatever it is — began its hideous march in earnest. He no longer bathes unless he is told to. His mother has to trick him into changing his clothes. He has had several brushes with the law. The cops think he is drunk or on drugs.
As the world began to close in on him, Frankie’s car, an old blue Cadillac, became his life. He drove to see old friends as far away as Virginia and Florida. Even though he sometimes couldn’t recall his friends’ names, he could remember how to get to their houses.
Then last year some people who love Frankie took his car keys away from him. It was a step they did not take lightly, but they were worried that he might hurt himself, or someone else. Later, after a medical examination, a doctor declared him unfit to drive, and his license was officially revoked.
Frankie still doesn’t understand why he cannot drive, and says over and over again, “I need to get out. I need to travel.”
What is heartbreaking is that Frankie is trying so very hard to keep his grip on life. He still does “business” with a few old friends who humor him. He still tries to play golf. He writes page after page of horribly misspelled notes to remind him of things he thinks he needs to do. He draws detailed — and surprisingly accurate — maps of places he has been.
There is one wonderful thing Frankie hasn’t forgotten, though. It is as if God had left him this one last pleasure. Frankie can still dance. He does the shag, that funky, sexy beach dance invented on the South Carolina coast more than 50 years ago.
He is the old Frankie again when he is out on that dance floor. His eyes come alive and his face lights up. He spins and shuffles, whirls and loops. Frankie may be losing his memory, but his feet haven’t lost theirs.
This is a sad story with no moral, no happy ending. Time is erasing my friend Frankie and there is nothing anyone can do about it.
The clock is ticking. Dance, Frankie, dance.