(Yet Another) Poem Against Alzheimer’s

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End of a Monarchy

A simple story that I yearned to tell,
Just two, a boy and orange butterfly,
Enchanted by the lavish summer flush
Of lark and lilac, hollyhock and thrush.
+++He did not really know just why he wept.

At first it seemed a game of innocence
To chase the dainty kite around the yard.
Its random flight impossible to track,
Just as it drew in range it fluttered back.
+++He laughed as if this day would never end.

In time the butterfly would come to rest
Upon the sweet and fragrant purple bloom.
The boy would seize at last that prize he sought,
But saw at once he’d ruined what he had caught.
+++Tears dropped upon an orange, broken wing.

You brought, dear friend, all this to life on film,
The first production of your long career.
Quite primitive, for sure, it was, and raw.
We were not ones to dwell on any flaw.
+++For we were making art and we were glad.

We ventured forth for beauty, truth and love.
We vowed we’d float the Mississippi’s length.
We’d plumb our nation’s soul and sing its song.
We were so young and casual and strong.
+++And confident our time was all our own.

But life’s vicissitudes drew us apart.
There’d be no sequel to our maiden work.
We’d never float that river on a raft,
Nor join to sharpen one another’s craft.
+++No use to wonder now what might have been.

For time has caught up with your mind too soon.
The wings on which you soared are broken now.
Your free and fancy flight has turned to stone.
You’ve gone and left us lonesome and alone.
+++Too late I realized just why I wept.

(2020)


(Butterfly Photo by Justin DoCanto on Unsplash)

NOTES: In 1968, my friend and classmate Gene Marksbury played his new album for me, Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel. The duo’s album Sounds of Silence had been my very first record purchase a couple of years earlier. I was already a fan.

There had always been heartache, poignancy and disappointment in their music, but this new album took it further. It seemed to cover the whole span of life. Youth and young love, breakdowns of relationships, and — finally — the losses that come with old age.

The album ended with the admonition that has haunted me ever since:

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence. A time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories; They’re all that’s left you.

I have a photograph from that era long ago:

Gene Marksbury, Bobby Ball and Clyde Smith
From left to right: Gene Marksbury, me, and Clyde Smith

The shot shows us as we prepared for a camping trip on the banks of the Missouri River a few miles from our home. Gene is the one on the left and our friend Clyde Smith is on the right holding the rifle. Years before, we were members of the same slot car racing club and spent a lot of time together. In the insanity of adolescence, we had once tried to hold our own 24-hour Le Mans slot car race.

But by time of this photo we were all probably about 16 or 17, and primed for more challenging adventures. It was also about this time that Clyde somehow got access to a movie camera. He was already a talented photographer and he was eager to make a movie.

I had written a very short story for an English class and he decided that this would be the basis for his first film. The story was about a boy chasing a butterfly, catching it and then instantly regretting that he had damaged it beyond repair. I had called the story “End of a Monarchy.”

It was the most basic of plots, but Clyde recruited a younger friend to be the star and somehow wrangled an unfortunate butterfly to play the supporting role. And, to his credit, Clyde made it happen. It was shot on primitive, grainy, 8mm film, but when he was finished, he had himself a movie.

I was delighted, of course.

After high school graduation, Clyde and I came very close to going to the same college. We dreamed big about a future of artistic collaboration. But I received a scholarship from a different school with an offer I couldn’t refuse, and we went our separate directions.

I emerged from college a few years later armed with a B.A in philosophy and classics, and no serious plan for the future. What followed was a checkered career. Bouncing from fry cook to restaurant manager to salesman to journalist to copy writer to creative director … most of the time earning a living to support my family and my poetry habit.

Gene’s life took a circuitous route, but he ended up teaching college back in our hometown for a few years. He now owns a winery and operates a tasting room in nearby Glasgow, MO, overlooking the Missouri River. His Bushwhacker Bend Norton Dry Red is pretty tasty.

Clyde, meanwhile, headed out to Hollywood and forged a successful career as a cinematographer and director of photography. He made some real movies and several really cool music videos for Weird Al Yankovic. Clyde even won an Emmy at one point.

Clyde and I had not seen each other for decades. But three years ago my wife and I were in Los Angeles and I made a point of reconnecting with him. We spend a delightful lunch with him and had a wonderful time making up for lost time. We reminisced for more than two hours, and he reminded me of details about our youthful escapades that I had forgotten.

I did notice that Clyde repeated a couple of stories during the course of our conversation but didn’t think too much of it.

After we returned home, Clyde and I exchanged a few messages. But he soon stopped replying and I got busy. Sometime later I realized I hadn’t heard from him for quite some time. I remembered his seemingly insignificant forgetfulness during out lunch and began to worry.

Late last year I went to his Facebook page and my fears were confirmed. From information posted there, I learned that Clyde was suffering from Alzheimer’s and had declined rapidly. He was already in the later stages and had reached the point where his wife was no longer able to care for him at home and keep him safe.

Since then she has been able to move him into a care facility that specializes in such patients, but she reports that he no longer recognizes her, their daughter, their dog, or anyone elseIn 1968, my friend and classmate Gene Marksbury played his new album for me, Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel. The duo’s album Sounds of Silence had been my very first record purchase a couple of years earlier. I was already a fan.
There had always been heartache, poignancy and disappointment in their music, but this new album took it further. It seemed to cover the whole span of life. Youth and young love, breakdowns of relationships, and — finally — the losses that come with old age.
The album ended with the admonition that has haunted me ever since:
Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence. A time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories; They’re all that’s left you.
I have a photograph from that era long ago:.

I lost my mother to dementia many years ago, and this news about my friend has dredged up all sorts of grief and regret. I’ve been thinking of all the questions I wish I could have asked my mother when she still was able to answer.

I’ve been wishing that Clyde and I had stayed in closer touch since we left our Missouri hometown. I’ve been wishing we had had the opportunity to work together again.

I’ve been thinking of my past, my family, my friends, trying to preserve as many many memories as I possibly can.

I’ve been repeating Paul Simon’s lyrics in my head and wondering, when you lose your memories, what do you have left?

Published by

Bobby Ball

I love poetry. But I'm picky. No one pays me to read and write poems. It's more of a labor of love. I guess that puts me in good company. This is a project to discover why some poems strike you deep, deep down, while others leave you cold. I've got some ideas, and I'm eager to learn. I'll show you some of mine. Maybe we'll learn something new.

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