'Gotta Keep Going': Star Tribune Sports Editor Documents Friend's Fight Against Alzheimer's

Mike Rowekamp and Paul Klauda, aka the Kid
Mike Rowekamp was only 50 years old when the symptoms of Alzheimer's crept into his life. His childhood friend Paul Klauda is helping him hold onto his memories.
Mike & Paul

Mike and Paul. They met in grade school, went to high school together and graduated from the University of St. Thomas, back when it was the College of.

Only one of them firmly remembers their childhood rounds of golf, the hallowed halls of Rochester Lourdes High School, their halcyon college days or where they went last week. Or even yesterday. Mike Rowekamp was only 50 in 2008 when the early symptoms crept into his life. Missing memories led to growing questions, and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013.

Early last year, Mike’s, wife, Terese, enlisted the help of friends to take him out from time to time, giving her respite and him some social interaction. Lunch. A Twins game. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. St. Thomas. Anywhere. “I try to see him at least once a month,” says Paul Klauda of Chanhassen, who, along with others, began taking Mike on outings in 2017 even before Terese asked for help.

A sports editor with the Star Tribune, it makes sense that Paul uses words to illustrate his experiences and thoughts. He utilizes Instagram to chronicle some of his moments with Mike—lifting the lid, in a very personal way, on life with Alzheimer’s. “… I knew his story was compelling. I thought why not try to make it relatable. I think about that term a lot when I post—normal, real-life stuff that anyone could be experiencing in their life. This could be you with someone you know …” Paul says.

“I had not experienced the disease in my life in any deep, meaningful way before Mike,” he says. “To see the effect on his wife, his children and his siblings has been the hardest. I don’t post about that much because I don’t witness a lot of it firsthand. But its pervasiveness is soul-crushing and sobering.”

Paul’s way of viewing his own life has changed through Alzheimer’s cloudy prism. “Every time we meet, it’s like the first time for him,” he says of Mike, who he refers to as The Kid, a nod to his youthful appearance during his early softball playing days. “That realization now colors how I view my life—that memories of life can die before you do, even if you’re relatively young ... Think about knowing someone all of your life, and now, when you’re both still young enough to do the things you grew up doing together, you have to say, ‘Hi, Mike, I’m Paul Klauda. We’ve known each other since grade school’ …”

Names to Faces

… Long before Alzheimer’s robbed him of so much … Mike would call some of his Twin Cities buddies about this time of year. We’d usually meet at The Little Wagon, close to the newspaper where I worked and the Pillsbury Tower where he once worked. Other former St. Thomas dorm guys and softball buddies would be there, too. / We’d trade stories about our kids, our lives and vow to get together more often. Usually it took Mike’s call the next December to make it happen. / These days it’s not called the Pillsbury Tower anymore. The Wagon’s gone. Mike’s had to retire from the business he and his wife built. / But on Thursday we had lunch, just the two of us, and tried, as he likes to do, with a yearbook to jiggle loose a few memories. / It wasn’t like old times. / Imagine working a jigsaw puzzle, with 1,000 pieces spread out on a table, without the benefit of a picture on the box to guide you. / And then, amazingly, Mike would see a face and say the name, someone he hadn’t seen in 40-some years ... Then he would ask the same question he asked in the car, at the door of the restaurant, and again maybe 30 minutes later … / It hurts to see him trying so, so hard. / “Gotta keep going,’’ he said gamely, after struggling to connect my picture in the yearbook with me sitting across from him. ‘’There’s enough in there to keep on going.” / He paused, then added, “so I’ll keep on going."

"I rejoice in that."

“I’ve got something in my brain, whatever that is. And it’s …’’ / Before The Kid could complete his thought, the table server, dutifully keeping tabs on us, came up during our lunch on Monday. She couldn’t have known that at that moment my 60-year-old friend since grade school was trying to piece together the words, which come harder and harder each time we get together, to explain the Alzheimer’s that is slowly stealing his life ... / In fact, The Kid has noticeably slipped. Old yearbook faces from high school are harder to place. His wife, who has retired early to care for him, is exploring adult activity care for him. Under incredible demands as his primary caregiver, she plans to start delivering Meals on Wheels with him, and take him to pack food at Feed My Starving Children. Anything to get him out of the house, before things inevitably get worse. / “I don’t even know what I don’t know,’’ Mike said after the server left. “So I just ignore it. Because it’s gonna happen if it’s gonna happen.’’ / He paused to find more words. / “So I’m glad to have the chance to see all of our friends, including you.’’ He paused again. / “And I rejoice in that.”

Side by Side

Alzheimer’s doesn’t take snow days. So when the text message arrived Thursday morning from The Kid’s wife, the decision was easy. / “Mike would really like to go if you want to brave the roads,’’ she wrote … / A few days ago, on The Kid’s Lotsa Helping Hands website, she posted that he no longer recognizes his own home. He has a hard time understanding directions when he needs help. And he has periods of despondency. / What hurt most was her description of the toll it’s taking on her. Those of you dealing with this disease know those details all too well. / As I drove The Kid to a Greek restaurant he’s fond of, he hummed along to the music -- “Hollywood Nights.’’ / “Who’s the singer?’’ I asked, then gave some hints. / “Bob …. and the Silver Bullet Band.’’ / “Bob Seger,’’ he quickly said. / When we reached the parking lot, he was practically in tears. He talked about getting “our comrades’’ together, people he can’t name but must be able to fuzzily recollect to provoke that kind of emotion ...

Music Memories

… Once they found the band section of the high school yearbook, the two former clarinet players found plenty more to discover again … / For several mostly joyful hours, The Kid got to experience flashes of his old self. He laughed. He teased. He smiled. / He still needed a little help finding the bathroom, and his way back to the table. And the car in the parking lot. / Meanwhile, his wife, through the goodness of a dear friend of hers and Mike’s, was able to spend most of one day on her own, without having to tend to his growing needs. Just one day, but a much-needed respite from the relentlessness of the disease she, too, bears ... 

Down the Ave.

The music in the car was “Saturday in the Park’’ and The Kid was humming along as we drove down Cleveland Avenue to visit our alma mater St. Thomas. His Alzheimer’s prevented him from recalling the band’s name — Chicago — but when I slowed down near St. Kate’s, he blurted out “Cecil’s!’ as we passed the familiar delicatessen. / “People dancing, people laughing, a man selling ice cream, singing Italian songs,’’ went the music … / Once we reached St. Thomas, however, it was more miss than hit. Familiar buildings, including his dorm Ireland Hall, are now surrounded by new ones … / We stopped at the remodeled library, where the sound of the familiar carillon caught The Kid by surprise. / But when it came time to toss the Frisbee, all it took to get him straightened out was to remind him which hand to throw with. / And then it was as much like 40 years ago could be for two old friends on a Saturday in the lower quad.

Sweet Scoops of Joy

Well, the Twins couldn’t hold a lead Monday evening. But The Kid got to hold an ice cream cone on a beautiful spring evening at the ballpark ... / He made small talk with the usher, marveling about the weather. It’s one of the few uninterrupted thoughts that his Alzheimer’s will still let him express without stopping him cold in mid-sentence …/ No, he didn’t remember throwing the Frisbee or visiting his college alma mater two days ago. Didn’t remember any of it ... / On the way home Alzheimer’s had erased his ability to recall the flavor of ice cream he enjoyed. / But he enjoyed it. For a few hours, on a gorgeous night with friends, he broke away from the grip of the disease for at least a few moments, and got to hold onto a few scoops of joy in his life.

"Keep swinging."

The Kid, on the left, turned 61 on Monday ... / Had it been in 1987 or so, he probably would have spent the evening playing softball with these guys. Morgan, Perk, Sparky, to nickname a few. That’s me, PK, to his left. / He was our best hitter, our best player, our undisputed leader. / … The Kid is expected to move from his home where he and his wife raised three daughters for more than three decades. He’s on a waiting list to get into a memory care facility. It’s barely 3 miles from the ballfields here where he used to knock home runs over the fence with regularity ... / He’s talked to [his wife] for months about “quitting” where he lives because he’s bored. The disease has relegated his wife to a role she describes as full time activities director. / Mike talks of wanting to move to a place and live with friends, perhaps remembering the social, active nature of dorm life in college ...  / It’s an inevitable next step, one that alternately makes sense and, she notes, brings tears. For both of them. / Happy birthday, Kid. Keep swinging.