At an elevation of ten thousand feet on the Mount Whitney Trail in the High Sierras, I met a blonde with sky-blue eyes who looked straight at me with disarming innocence.
She hiked up the trail on a wild idea that she needed to do something different with her life, because it was not going well. Her companion for the trip wanted to go further up toward the summit, but she was wet and cold, and so she turned back to the shelter of the Mirror Lake campground. Alone, with a damp sleeping bag and a stove she couldn’t use, she saw my fire and walked a few steps to approach me, unhesitating and guileless.
“Do you mind if I heat my cocoa on your fire?” she asked.
Of course not. I was hooked instantly. I offered her shelter from the rain in my tent, and we spent that night together, talking for hours.
I learned that Diane survived inexcusable childhood neglect, but overcame her early deprivation to lead a vibrant, exceptional life. At age fourteen she spent ten days in solitary confinement as punishment for escaping from the Minnesota Home School for Girls. Following her release, Diane’s life careened out of control. After an unsuccessful first marriage, she married her childhood sweetheart. He later developed paranoid schizophrenia and attempted suicide. Then, Diane discovered her husband was obsessed with murder — and he had a gun. Diane left him to protect her infant daughter. That decision changed her life. She began her new direction by making a trek into the wilderness. That was when I met her at Mirror Lake. After that first night together, we were never apart for more than a few days for the next fifty years.
Years later, her daring spirit had largely departed, leaving her diminished soul in my care, and I cared for her to the very end. Every day I would resolve to treat her with compassion, tenderness, and love, and tried my best to live up to that. But she would often find a way to push my patience past the limit; sometimes I would shout at her; sometimes I would storm out of the room, or retreat into silence. And once in awhile, she would talk with me as if nothing had changed since we met, and for some moments we would feel normal.
At night, when I lifted her gently into bed, I would remember how I felt toward her, and she toward me, before dementia stole her mind. I would try to communicate my feelings to her as I laid her down to sleep. Then I would have some time to myself, to reflect and think about the future.
The future finally came.
Again and again, I am pulled back into memories of the past. When I met Diane, she was afraid to tell me that she had a three-year-old daughter, that she was still married to her husband who suffered from schizophrenia, and that she was a high school dropout. I was young, a recent college graduate working in my first real job, and I was six years younger than Diane. Prudence would have guided me quickly away from a single mother with no prospects, still attached to an estranged, deranged husband. But I wasn’t prudent then.
The attraction between us, two singularly unorthodox people, meeting in a most unlikely place, overrode any caution a prudent person might have felt. I cashed in a life insurance policy and gave her the money she needed to hire a lawyer and annul her marriage. She was afraid to do that, afraid that he might kill himself as a result, and that held her back before.
Her little girl Jennifer Jay Palmer, bright and outgoing at that age, strawberry blonde hair in a Dutch boy haircut, won me over quickly. It was never just Diane, but always both of them, that I fell in love with. Jennifer’s astrological sign was Cancer and her grandmother, who believed in astrology, warned Diane to beware of cancer because Jennifer’s astrological sign made her vulnerable. I thought that was nonsense.
At seventeen, Jennifer did get cancer, with lifelong consequences. But after a few very difficult years she found her dream and went on to become a successful and acclaimed director. Just before we held Diane’s memorial, Philadelphia Women in Film and Television, the group Jennifer helped to found and grow, honored her when they dedicated a grant in her name for young women directors.
In the last two weeks of June, 1968, Diane graduated from high school, her marriage was annulled due to her husband’s mental illness, and we were married. We moved to Colorado, to put some distance between us and Diane’s former husband. During our first ten years we moved around a few more times, trying to find the right place to settle: Minnesota, Washington, California, and finally New Jersey, where we stayed until now.
Diane made friends wherever she lived, people who responded to her direct way of talking about everything. She made a few enemies, too, for the same reason. But I don’t think anyone was ever indifferent. She gave birth to two beautiful daughters, who grew up believing her when she told them that they could follow their dreams and do whatever they dreamed of doing.
Our years in New Jersey were full of highlights and beautiful memories: trips to Aruba, Greece, Mexico, Alaska, Maine, Canada, and the Caribbean; Diane’s graduation from Burlington County College; Jennifer’s graduation from Goucher College; Lauren’s winning the Miss Burlington County pageant; Jennifer’s phenomenal 48-hour Film Project videos; Lauren’s brief modeling career…
Diane was devastated when her parents fell ill; first her father died in 1992, then her mother exactly one year later in 1993. Diane had a serious flare-up of autoimmune disease that remained a problem for the rest of her life, but it never kept her from living full tilt.
Lauren, our younger daughter, struggled through the years after Jennifer’s first cancer, but she eventually grew to become her sister’s staunchest supporter during the worst years of Jennifer’s life, and organized Jennifer’s memorial service when the after-effects of her cancer finally overtook her in 2015.
Diane and Jennifer both nearly died from internal bleeding in 2013. After weeks in the hospital, both survived, but it was a turning point in Diane’s dementia. Despite her declining health, during the next two years we made several long road trips across the country: to Springfield, Illinois, where we found the house she lived in at the age of ten with her aunt Charlotte and uncle Gus; to Minnesota, where we saw her childhood friend Dale, and visited Diane’s 94-year-old aunt Bernice; to Florida and Georgia, where we visited Renee and her family, our friends from Medford Lakes; and Tennessee, where we visited Erik, an old family friend who lived off the grid in the hills beyond Oak Ridge.
Diane didn’t remember any of those trips for long, but she enjoyed traveling and seeing people, even when she couldn’t remember who they were.
As her dementia progressed, our life together grew smaller and smaller. Long trips across country became short trips to the grocery store, day after day. Daily life followed a repetitive pattern with little variation: the same food, the same activities, the same rooms in the house every day. Diane no longer recognized her own house. Sometimes she did not recognize me. She depended on me for every need, but insisted she wanted to go home so she could be on her own, in her own house.
Some days, she could not walk from the bed to her chair in the living room, so I helped her into a wheelchair. Her bodily functions deteriorated. Her care became more difficult. Infections occurred with greater frequency. In January 2018, her doctor recommended home hospice care. We contacted the hospice organization on a Tuesday. They evaluated her on a Thursday and accepted her that same afternoon. Lauren and I had prepared the living room so a hospital bed could be placed there. By 5:30 PM, the bed was in place with Diane resting in it. By then, she was drifting in and out of consciousness. Soon she stopped eating. A few days later, she stopped drinking. On the eighth day in hospice care, Diane stopped breathing, and her heart was still. We bathed her body for the last time, and gave her over to the funeral home for cremation.
Diane’s life has ended. A simple truth. But Diane’s story is not over. Her story continues in the memories and the love of those who knew her. It goes on in those whom she nurtured and mentored, and friends who learned from Diane’s example. Her story lives, even in people who never met her, but who received gifts of love, compassion, and knowledge from her daughters, as they tried to live their lives the way she taught them. Diane’s story lives in everyone who was touched by the love and attention she gave throughout her life to everyone around her.
Alzheimer’s dementia is trending now as our population ages and the number of patients and caregivers rises into the millions in this country. Mirror Lake is my first-hand account of a man and woman who lived it. Our story will appeal to many readers, including caregivers and families of dementia patients, parents of ill children, feminists, and readers who simply love a tale of misadventure and redemption that carries them along with imperfect characters who make lots of mistakes and keep trying to do better.
Look for news about Mirror Lake as it moves through the publishing process.