A tribute to everyone’s greatest cheerleader

Support Alzheimer's research May 3
A tribute to everyone’s greatest cheerleader

I first met Mary Ripple in 1967. We were freshmen in high school. Like all freshmen, we were confused and anxious, thrown into a new world. Yet Mary was quick with a laugh and naturally friendly.

That following summer, back when the sun and water were not a threat, I ran into her at Vilas Beach. She was with her sister Diane, who was a year younger and shy. For whatever reason, I was immediately and forever attracted to Diane.

The years moved forward and Mary’s sister, the skinny girl in the polka-dot bikini, became my wife, and Mary became my sister-in-law. During our courtship, Diane and I set Mary up with my roommate and coaching buddy, John Boyle, and to our surprise they got married before we did.

Mary and Diane, always the closest of sisters, were nicknamed “Brenda and Cobina,” after a female comedy duo who starred opposite the Three Stooges, by their parents, Don and Mary Anne. They got that moniker right.

As the years advanced, the two sisters began to have kids, all in a cluster. For all practical purposes Mary and Diane raised their six children as siblings.

John Boyle went on to become one of the more successful basketball coaches in the Madison area, taking both the East Purgolders and the Middleton Cardinals to the state championship finals. Sons Danny and Tone were fine local high school players. Mary was at every game, supporting everyone, every step of the way.

As time passed, and Diane and Mary kicked their kids out into the world, they were able to spend more time together as sisters, less burdened by motherhood. Although when they would get together, they’d share worry about their kids, as good moms do forever.

It was on a Florida getaway with just the two sisters when Diane, a nurse, became concerned. The night she arrived home, we sat down at the kitchen table and Diane said starkly, “There is something wrong with Mary.” On their vacation Mary was strangely confused, constantly losing her purse and talking to herself as she obsessively cleaned the condo.

It turns out that Diane was right. There was something wrong. After months of angst and tests, it was determined that Mary had Alzheimer’s disease. She was fifty-seven years old when she was diagnosed. Fifty. Seven.

John retired from teaching shortly thereafter. Mary’s oldest child, Haley, quit a thriving career that had taken her to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and moved back to Middleton. John, Haley and Diane soon became Mary’s primary caregivers, with the rest of the clan doing what we could when we could.A tribute to everyone’s greatest cheerleader

At first Mary’s disease was manageable. Though she couldn’t access your name, or the right words to express the beauty of a tree, she was, in very many ways, still Mary. She was masterful at pretending she could remember someone as she gave them a hug. Strangely, one aspect of her disease created moments when it was as if she were seeing a sunset or a full moon for the very first time. Mary’s reborn appreciation for the beauty of the natural world that her brain had somehow forgotten was a reminder and sad gift to all of us.

Now, five years since her diagnosis, we see only brief flashes of the woman we all loved. The demands made on the care team are relentless. Each day brings uncertainty and some other new, brutal reality.

Our two families’ clan, never a quiet group, is not taking Mary’s battle with Alzheimer’s passively. Two years ago, in an effort to do something, anything, to battle Mary’s disease, Haley organized an event called Blondes vs. Brunettes, a flag football game featuring young women raising money to support Alzheimer’s research. They throw themselves around the football field with abandon, fighting each other in good sport as they fight the disease that has stolen Mary and so many of their family members.

This year, on May 3 at one o’clock, the girls will kick off again. They will be decked out in all their glory. The anthem will be sung. And the color commentary from the booth at Keva Sports Center in Middleton will be provided by the always funny James Roach, along with this writer as his sidekick. The Roach daughters, Kate and Mags, will make their way from Chicago to stand alongside their blonde cousin/sister Haley, prepared to wreak havoc on the Brunettes.

Although Mary’s condition has worsened, she may be able to attend the game. But her behavior is altered. For a woman who was everyone’s greatest cheerleader, it is a tough, sad thing to witness how her cheers have died.

But on that day, it will be our prayer that Mary, who cheered on so many others for so long, might somehow, somewhere in the compromised biology of her brain, know that it is now all of us who cheer desperately for her.