Hometownie Hero

Forget me not

Acclimating to a loved one’s Alzheimer’s forces a Palm Coast family to reassess their roles — and forces columnist Mike Cavaliere to consider a life in competitive hot dog eating.

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  • | 6:50 a.m. December 7, 2023
Rebecca Cavaliere explores a rocky coastline with daughter Charlotte a few years back, in the same spirit that she and her own mother, Helene, used to explore the world when she was young. (Photo: Mike Cavaliere)
Rebecca Cavaliere explores a rocky coastline with daughter Charlotte a few years back, in the same spirit that she and her own mother, Helene, used to explore the world when she was young. (Photo: Mike Cavaliere)
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"I have a bone to pick with you," my mother-in-law, Helene, hissed at me. This was four years ago, back when she still had her faculties.

"Oh boy….” I braced for impact. "What'd I do this time?"

Mike Cavaliere

She leaned on the counter and scowled. "Hot dogs." She pointed a finger. "I hear you're forcing Charlotte to eat hot dogs."

I chuckled at the implication, the fantasy of me and my then-7-year-old stepdaughter in an empty boxing gym after hours: her sat in front of a platter of franks piled high, and me in sweats, screaming, "MORE! MORE!" In my mind, it’s a "Rocky"-level training montage. At first, Char could only eat six or seven, but soon, I have her scarfing 20, 40. "You're gonna eat lightning and crrrap thunder!" I bark as she dunks wieners into water then shoves them down her gullet. Sixty. Seventy. Only a matter of time now before we kick that smug Joey Chestnut off his cholesterol-ridden horse.

But the reality was way less fun.

Rebecca was gone for the summer and, new enough to parenting to still have hope, I was determined to broaden Charlotte's diet beyond yogurt and “squeezy” pouches of baby food. So, I made a plan: one bite of something new each day.

"Listen," Helene scolded. "When I was a little girl, my mother forced me to eat tomatoes, and I—"

"Projectile vomited everywhere," I finished her sentence. "Oh, I've heard the tales."

Everybody had. She repeated the story anytime tomatoes, trying things or mothers came up, and her repetition of it was one of many signs to Rebecca that something was "off" with her mom. Then things got worse. Then undeniable. Then the family started touring memory-care facilities.

Before the dementia, Helene was a force — assertive, independent, a Manhattan working woman who once interviewed Billy Joel before he got famous (another one of her greatest-hit stories). In a way, she’s still that person today.

"Can she stand on her own?" a nurse asked the family, during intake.

"I can stand,” Helene fired back. “And punch someone.” And the nurse nodded as if all she heard was, "Standing is my specialty!"

Maybe the worst part about Alzheimer’s is how it makes those afflicted with it unaware of when they say something hilarious.

"I birthed you," Helene tells Rebecca often and always out of nowhere, in the same tone that a child shows off a new page from her coloring book. She has no sense of irony, either, when she asks for a cup of coffee, only to dump it down the drain immediately after I hand her the mug. She doesn't even have the decency to drop a one-liner first, either — something savage, like, "Oh, didn't I tell you? I like my coffee like I like my men: strong and …” (starts pouring) “… TOTALLY WASTED, SUCKKAA!"

Then, like waking from a bad dream, her fog will lift in sudden sparks of recognition.

"I am your mother," she announced to Rebecca on the bleachers of Charlotte’s last basketball game, delivering the line as if she were sharing a secret, blowing the lid off of classified intel — the climax at the end of every episode of “Maury.”

"Yep," Rebecca nodded, flashing me a frown. Then she leaned in to look deeply into her mother's eyes: "I am your daughter.” And they both laughed, although for different reasons.

Once Helene looked away, though, the Etch A Sketch of her mind shook away the shapes again.

"She's right there," John snapped, pointing to Rebecca, their firstborn. This time, Helene eyed her child with suspicion.

"You're not Rebecca," she muttered. "You're ... you."

When the bleachers cleared, we made our way outside, but Helene sputtered in the crowd, so Rebecca grabbed her hand. They walked the rest of the way like that: a mother and a daughter with fingers intertwined, just like they used to when they had their whole lives ahead of them. From afar, you might have seen their silhouettes: neither lost or leading or leaving the other. Just two travelers pressed against the sunset, bound together on their way to somewhere else.

Mike Cavaliere is the author of The Humorist: Adventures in Adulting & Horror Movies, available now.


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