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The Threatening Word Game...in which Uncle Duke lucks out once again


I just had my annual physical. And to be honest, I had been stressing about it for months. But not for the reasons one would assume an old guy would worry about. My health is actually pretty good. I take fair to middling care of myself, and my vital signs are mostly in the normal range. Most of my replaceable parts have already been replaced, and they all seem to be functioning well. Thank you, all ye Engineering Gods, for your technology, titanium and jet age plastics. I am a fortunate guy.

No, what I mostly feared were those pesky questions the nurse asks you before the doctor comes in. Those questions they only start asking you when you retire. Those questions that if you say ‘yes’ to, bells and whistles start to go off in your Medicare file.

“Do you ever get dizzy or have balance issues?”

“Do you ever have trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night?”

“Do you drink every day?”

“Do you ever get depressed or anxious?”

“Have you ever smoked or used any tobacco products?”

“Do you ever pee in your pants?” Or words to that effect.

If you say ‘yes’ to too many of these, little red lights start blinking up in the Cloud. These are land mine questions that if the answer is ‘yes’, they alert the DMV and make you take a driver’s test.

“Nope,” I say. “Never happens.”

“No, ma’am,” I say. “Not ever. Sleep like a baby every night.”

“What? No way!” I bluff. “That’s the Devil’s brew?”

“Hell, no,” I lie. “Not me. Do I look like an anxious person?”

“I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may tend to incriminate me.”

“Not often,” I fib. “Maybe a little dribbler now and again.” Cripe, no one wants that ‘Depends’ talk.

Multiple ‘yes’ answers for any of the above mean that they call up your children and tell them to come pick you up and not let you out of the house without supervision.

And then there is the pop quiz part, where they ask you questions you really should know. I did OK on those last year, but I only because I was lucky.

“Can you tell me what month it is?”

Uh-oh, she’d caught me off-guard with that one. January, February and March all look pretty much the same to me these days. But I knew it wasn’t April yet. My birthday is in April so I pay attention to that one. Christmas was a long time ago, and it was still cold… so it was probably March. Cha-ching!

“How about the date?” she asked. Hmmm…that’s a tough one. The days of the month kind of run together these days. There’s generally not a lot of reasons for me to remember them. But then I got lucky and recollected seeing all those revelers around Pat’s Tavern on Oakland when I drove by. And they were all wearing green. “Hah!” I shouted. “The 17th!” I was proud of myself. The Luck of the Irish!

“Good job,” she said. “Now can you tell me who the President is?”

Of course I knew who the President was. I had voted for him 5 or 6 times using that secret absentee ballot machine that Antifa provided for me.

And we kind of grew up together, politically speaking. Why, on my good days, I could even name the Vice-President.

But my brain has never worked well under pressure. Something happens to it. It compresses and freezes. The gears jam and lock up. It panics and goes blank and drives even obvious answers into deep, brushy cover.

I could see him, with his crisp suit, aviator sunglasses and big toothy smile. But this was taking way too long. The nurse looked up from the computer, and I could see she was poised to hit the buzzer which would go off at the assisted living center. Another couple seconds and they would just shuffle me over there and show me my new room.

“Joe, Joe…Biden!” I gasped, putting name to grin. Just in the nick of time too.

She went back to her keyboard. And then came the Kicker.

“I’m going to give you three words, which I’m going to ask you to repeat in a little while,” she said very deliberately. “Apple, penny and table.”

This was the final trip wire. A 5-year-old or a 65-year-old, or most anyone in between, could give you these words back a week from now. Backwards or forwards. But a 75-year-old who had spent a good portion of his youth ramming his poorly helmeted head into large and hard-charging bodies with as much force as his under-sized body could muster, he’s got less of a shot at it. A 75-year-old who has spent more time than he would like to admit testing the effects of various levels of alcohol on the human body and brain, that guy finds this a challenge of no small magnitude. A 75-year-old who struggles with names of movies he just saw, last night, and all the actors and actresses in it…well, that guy hears this assignment and is chilled to the freaking bone. For that 75-year-old guy, the odds are long and the stakes are high.

That little test is there of course to measure our short-term memory. And by extension, our cognitive decline. It is a sensitive subject, is it not? For many of us. There are some levels of decline that are apparently acceptable. ‘Age Appropriate’ it is called. The brain is kind of a muscle, after all. It atrophies. It suffers wear and tear like so many other joints and organs.

It is also just a bunch of soft tissue, so cells die off and do not get replaced. Plaque builds up. As a functioning computer, some of the links get disconnected, networks get rearranged. It’s a natural process. I understand they are merely trying to determine the degree, if any, of our brain’s deterioration or dysfunction. But it’s a scary battery of questions nonetheless.

In my world, there are seemingly a countless number of friends and relatives who have difficulty with names, places, events. Some to a disabling degree. A number of them are older than me, but many are not.

And for almost all of us, there are direct lines of lineage linking us to one or more relatives who in their last years struggled with the language or lost the battle to keep their thoughts in order. And we wonder if we are in the queue. It is a threatening proposition which occupies an inordinate amount of much needed band width. It is the Senior boogeyman-under-the-bed.

And all it takes is for a word to escape us—a name we just spoke, a teammate from high school, a restaurant we’ve always enjoyed, that term for a whatchamacallit—and there is a ball of anxiety the size of a bulldog in our chest and thorax.

You’ll notice I use the pronouns ‘us’ and ‘our’ here. I use them because they are much less scary than the more familiar ones of ‘me’ and ‘my’. In my hometown, there are some circles in which the term ‘dementia’ is alternately known as “Haydon Men’s disease”. Comforting thought there, eh. Is it any wonder I moved away!

But the point is that this diminishment of mind while the body still lives is a thing to be feared. A thing to be feared, but not a thing that can be avoided. The script is kind of written already, but no one has given us a copy. The anticipation is palpable.

So last year, about this time (March 17th to be exact) I was fielding questions and trying to decide which ones to lie about and which ones to concede, and the nurse asked: “So what were those three words I asked you to remember?”

My brain ground to a halt. It turned inward and looked back into the jungle. There were tangled vines and bushes and weeds and whole brush piles of words and text and lyrics.

It faltered and stuttered but then miraculously settled and focused. “Apple,” I said triumphantly. Then haltingly, “apple..and penny…and…I don’t remember the 3rd one,” I confessed.

Table,” she volunteered. And apparently, on this day, St. Patrick’s Day 2022, 66.7% was a passing grade. She made no phone calls, and I was allowed to go back out into the world and even drive myself home. I was elated. “Woo-hoo!” I exhaled and got back on the Highway of Life!

But those Three Words had been on my mind since then. They would be different words of course, but this year (March 22nd—I had that one down) I would be ready. I would concentrate. As soon as she pronounced them, I would engrave them in my frontal lobe and forge them in my subconscious. I would spout them back in a jiffy. Or maybe not. Maybe my brain would bury them in its boneyard. Its cemetery of dead and forgotten words.

Well, as it turned out, the nurse would ask me NO questions. Other than my phone number and DOB, and I’m pretty handy with those. I don’t know why. Maybe the protocol had changed. Maybe they were running behind. Maybe I just looked so darned healthy and alert, she just didn’t bother. I didn’t ask.

Which is not to say I don’t ask myself similar questions every day. There are frequent pop quizzes. The name of this, the word for that. Sometimes I remember. And sometimes I don’t. I write a piece every now and again—just to see if I still can. And sometimes it works. And sometimes it doesn’t.

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