This year on The Longest Day, June 21, a day when people across the world participate in a fundraising activity in the fight to end Alzheimer’s, I am honoring my beloved husband, Tony, with my team, Mah Jongg for Memories™.
I was taught how to play Mah Jongg shortly after Tony passed away seven years ago. My new Mah Jongg friends have helped me cope with the loss of my lifelong mate and got me involved in a new challenging activity just when I needed it the most.
Tony was diagnosed with younger-onset (also known as early-onset) Alzheimer’s at 58 and passed away at the age of 65. We met when I was 12 and Tony was 13. We spent almost our entire lives together, celebrating our 48th anniversary shortly before he passed away.
Tony's mother also had Alzheimer’s disease, and he had been her primary caregiver. When he started having symptoms, he was the first person in our family to reach out for help through the Alzheimer’s Association. We had a wonderful support group that I am still in contact with today who helped us marshal our way through the disease and its many intricacies.
Like Alzheimer’s, Mah Jongg is intricate. It is a tile-based game that has spread throughout the world after being developed in China during the Qing dynasty. It is a game of strategy, one of many ways you can love your brain. The tiles used in the game can be absolutely beautiful, especially older sets made of precious materials — true works of art. And there is a whole culture around Mah Jongg. To many people, it’s not simply a game: It is a way of life.
Mah Jongg isn’t a game you can just sit down and play. I spent time watching others play and took my mind away from focusing on negative feelings to focusing on something that felt very positive — and quite challenging. I read a few books about how to play because I wanted to have a short time frame of learning so I could participate as soon as I could!
The kindness of the people around me and the focus on this new passion helped me through a very difficult time. The saddest time was when I lost Tony and I was all alone during the evenings. Because of my Mah Jongg group, my evenings have filled up. One group parlayed into a Friday night dinner group, and a lot of other things have come from this social interaction, like my investigation of game sets and acquiring new pieces for my play. The Mah Jongg community has been a welcoming, supportive group of men and women, and I am excited to watch as younger generations become more interested in the game.
Getting involved in The Longest Day was truly a blessing. Thinking of Tony’s reaction to our team and all we’ve accomplished brings tears to my eyes. He was a ham: a gregarious, sunny kind of guy who adored being the center of attention. I think he would like that this event has generated all the attention it has!
The Longest Day is part of Tony’s legacy. I look at it as part of something good that came from something terrible. Today, I play Mah Jongg and fundraise in Tony’s memory for our children and for our grandchildren. It’s my opportunity to bring change to the future so that we can can all look forward to the day when Alzheimer’s no longer touches any of us.
About Jenelle: Jenelle Schatz plays Mah Jongg in honor of her late husband Tony on The Longest Day. Jenelle lives in Tulsa, Okla. Visit her team page.