Watch me disappear: A memoir of dementia

(The following is an excerpt from a longer work.)


Although I had the honor of knowing Nick Zipter in his later years, honor was not the term I used when he walked into my classroom.   Right off, a silver ponytail triggers my gag reflex.   Do these geezers think hair the way it was fifty years ago attracts snuff queens?  And he was wearing a canvas fishing vest over a long sleeved flannel shirt and Teva leather sandals like he’s on tour with Nirvana.  And a jade circle on a red string.  My first thought that September evening was this:  Here comes another old duffer who thinks what he has to say matters in the long run.

I needlessly shuffled papers while Nick glanced around the classroom, his eyes moving not quite in conjunction with his head.  He walked to the back row and sat at a table beside a woman, early 40s, I’d pegged as a divorcee, AA member, whose therapist suggested night school as a way of making sober friends.

After four years of teaching creative writing as an elective I can spot the types.

People say I’ve had such an interesting life I should be a writer.

I’ll tell you my story, you type it up, and we’ll split the money.

I’ve never read a book but how hard can it be to write one.

The night I met Nick Zipter, my teaching attitude was made worse by a long recovery from a virulent case of shingles.  Take my word, all shingles are virulent.  They hurt considerably more than you’ve ever hurt before and unlike torn ligaments or a busted nose the pain doesn’t go away in an hour, or even a week.  Shingles laugh in the face of pharmaceuticals.

So, I admit my outlook was neither perky nor positive at the prospect of three hours with hobby authors.  The old man in the ponytail had memoir written all over his gravity beaten face.

Which goes to show you.  Only the arrogant — me, that night — make flying leaps of judgment on people.  That divorcee would turn out to be the best writer I’ve personally known, and the old man with the silver hair would wake me up from years of stupor.

*     *     *

There were red flags.  An angry boy referenced “giants of literature,” I hadn’t heard of and said fucking before every noun.  The tea party blogger thought he was the funniest man in Wyoming.  He assumed we all agreed with his whack job rants.  A coed named Amylynne never took her ear pods off — my Constant Texter.  A kid in stained shorts was writing a series of haikus set in the world of downhill skiing.

A few showed promise of entertainment.  Louisa May said before writing a poem she mixes ink made from bearberries and her own blood.  She wore crocheted tights in a holiday pattern.  A cowboy was writing a book about his mule.  When I called on the woman next to Nick — Claudia, hair the color of an old penny, thick bangs, fingernails the same shade as her hair only on the nails it looked more liver colored than penny — she said she wrote short stories.  Something in her tone and posture and the way she was the only one taking notes made me take notice.  She propped her forearm on a Murakami hardback so she had to have a brain of sorts.

*     *     *

“Mr. Zipter.  Can you tell us why you are taking this class?”

The codger tucked his chin even lower than it was already tucked.  He glanced up, then back down again.  I expected a mumble, but when he spoke his voice was clear and deep.

“My wife wants me out of the house.”

Chuckles from the adults.  Smirks from the kids.

“I retired last spring.  From the Forest Service.  My wife said I should stop tying flies and get out around people.  She enjoys being around people and thinks I’m odd because I don’t.”

If his wife egged him into taking a class he didn’t want to take, I figured he’d quit soon.  “And what do you hope to write about during this class, Mr. Zipter?”

He gave the question serious thought.  The man showed no signs of embarrassment at talking in public.  He simply struck me as careful with his words.

“My wife thinks I should write down my life, so my daughter and granddaughter will know who I was, after I’m gone.”

Not only a memoirist, but a memoirist for his granddaughter.  Anything vaguely colorful would be left out.  Nobody wants grandkids to know the truth.   “Has your life been happy?”   I didn’t go on to say happy lives are great to live but poison to read about.  Happy people should not write.

He nodded, twice.  “I’d say my life has been regular.”

*     *     *

I explained how class works.  At the end of each session two would volunteer to bring in a story or batch of poems or whatever it is they were writing.  Make copies for everyone.  The next week you read the pages aloud and the class gives opinions and advice.

“Who volunteers for next week?”

Angry boy — Caleb — and a world traveler named Devon held up their hands.  I’d bet on Caleb, but Devon was a mild surprise.  My guess was blog.

I said, “Same time next week,” and, as they straggled out, I pretended absorption with my notes.  Louisa May stopped by my desk to give me a friendship card.

“I made the paper out of pumpkin rinds.”

“How creative.”

She sent me her most life affirming smile, then left.

*     *     *

“Mr. Sandlin.” Nick Zipter stood the proper Western distance from my desk, looking as if he might be waiting for something only he wasn’t quite sure what.  His posture was outstanding, for his age.  He stood at least six feet tall which put him considerably above me.

“Call me Tim.”

He gave a bobble nod.  His way of acknowledging information.  From close up I saw he had a heart-shaped ridge on his upper lip, below his nose.  “Only if you call me Nick.”

I placed my pen carefully on my notebook so I would know where it was should a pen-held gesture be called for.  “Okay, Nick.  How can I make this class more meaningful for you?”

Nick considered his words.  “It’s that part about reading your work out loud.”

“Would you rather me read your pages?  Some people like to hear how a manuscript sounds.  Others are not comfortable reading in front of strangers.”  To put it mildly.  I’ve had students go into stage three anxiety at the thought.

Nick had not shifted his weight or moved his hands the entire conversation.  What are the odds of that?  “The things I plan on writing are private.  I’d just as soon no one read them.  My past is no one’s business but mine.”

“You want to write but not be read?”

“That sums it up.”

Polar opposite of my attitude.  “Writing is dancing naked in public, Nick.  Somebody famous said that.  Shakespeare, maybe.”

“I’d rather not dance in public at all, much less naked.  I don’t look like much without clothes.”

“Are we speaking metaphorically?”

“All ways.  It doesn’t matter what Nell says, I’m not exposing my insides.”


“My wife.  Nell.”

Back to his wife again.  Nick took her opinions as some level of Gospel.  Must be one of those joined at the hip forty years ago situations.

“How about me?  Will you allow me to read what you write?  I can help you find ways to make your story clear, so your daughter and granddaughter can follow along.  People writing about themselves tend to take for granted readers understand their pronoun choices, when they don’t.  Things like that.”

I didn’t know what Nick did for the Forest Service, but it must have involved silent thinking while others waited in various degrees of patience.  “You are the instructor.  I guess I have to let you see my homework.”

Reading student work is hard and can be painful.  I don’t know why I’m so anxious to keep them from not writing.

“Tell you what, Nick.  Here’s what I want you to do.”

His face flashed concern.  First time it had flashed anything.  “Should I write this down.  My memory is not what it was.”

“I think you’ll remember.  I want you to sit in a room, alone, at least one hour a day, and write everything you recall about your life.  Each day a different memory.  Don’t concern yourself with chronological order or continuity.”

“I know chronological.  What’s continuity mean here?”

“Continuity is when your mother’s eyes are the same color on page 300 they were on page 50.  Lack of continuity is when your first job is welding and six chapters later it’s substitute teaching.  We’re not going to concern ourselves with that, at least not on the first draft.”

He spoke with authority.  “There won’t be a second draft.”



By Tim Sandlin