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Contest for the ages

Anyone else playing Non Compos Mentis?

Compos mentis: To be of sound mind. Non compos mentis, to be of unsound mind.

In the years before he died, my brother and I competed for the coveted “Non Compos Mentis Award.” My brother had invented the contest, titled it and designed the criteria. He also kept up its high standards and inspiration as we vied for the trophy.

Occasionally others submitted their entries, but, over time, we were the most faithful and consistent players.

“Wait till you hear my story,” I’d say.

“I’ve got a game-changer,“ he’d reply.

Our stories detailed our “senior moments,” those sudden defaults of short-term memory. Or our various failures to execute what was once so automatic and now, face it, given the business of aging, amount to a short-circuiting of the composed “mentis.”

I won hands down the time I inadvertently put my contact lenses in the wrong eyes, leaving me with skewed vision. As the day progressed, I was sure I was going blind. By noon, I was frantic. Finally, I barged into the optometrist’s office. He peered closely, asked a question or two and then made his pronouncement. “Take out your lenses.” I did. “Switch them.” I did. “Put them back in.” I did. “Can you see now?” I could. My brother handed me the trophy that month without a word.

He won the time he drove to Canada to visit family and didn’t have his passport. He then drove the three hours back to Vermont to retrieve his passport. But it wasn’t in its secure drawer. He looked everywhere, to no avail then had to cancel his trip. But several days later, when he went to look up a phone number in his address book, there it was, filed under Montreal. Ready to travel!

There was the time, I was waiting and waiting in one Indian restaurant, while my friends were waiting in the other Indian restaurant. (Oops. My bad.) And the time, my brother had neglected to shovel his porch during a wicked snowstorm and awoke the next morning to find the door iced shut. To get out that morning, in order to catch a plane, he had to crawl out a bedroom window, performing a face plant into the freezing tundra. And there was the time, my husband and I, searched the Big Y parking lot, but could not locate our blue CRV. We imagined it stolen, we cursed its fate. Of course, the blue CRV wasn’t in the parking lot because we had driven a black Honda, which was right where we left it.

Hardly a month went by without a juicy incident report. But, here’s the genius part about the contest. Once the immediate panic of the latest incident had settled, there came a sense of relief, even contentment and anticipation. Instead of shame or anxious confusion, there was the scent of victory and the glint of gold. If not actual gold, there was the dividend of camaraderie and shared laughter, a sense of self-acceptance and enforced humility. How else will any of us be able to encounter and “befriend” the inevitable bungler, the non compos mentis, that is the new companion of our reality?

“I’ve got the play-maker,” I’d say smacking my lips.

“Don’t be so sure,” he’d say. “I’m a contender.”

Now, that my brother is gone, and I am sort of on my own, it will be my job to oversee the contest. So, anyone have an entry for the next month? Anyone? And remember forgotten names, lost keys that you left in the ignition of your car, missing sunglasses that sit atop your head, scrambled appointments, or mismatched socks need not apply. Aren’t those events just our new normal?

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.

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