What is memory? Is it constructed of virtual marble? Built to last? Or is it something more fragile, ethereal?What are memories, after all, but a road map to a person’s identity, the signposts that detail a life’s journey? But what happens when that map gets torn or misplaced?
For St. Louis Blues forward T.J Oshie, the inkling that something might be amiss with his father, Tim, came during visits in St. Louis.
“We just noticed that he’d start asking the same questions a couple of times,” Oshie said. “When he would come to St. Louis, he would ask me what time the game started in the morning and then he’d ask me after pregame skate, and he’d ask me again later in the afternoon. So, that’s when I realized either he’s just not paying attention to me or something’s going on.”
There was also an episode in North Dakota when Tim Oshie became disoriented at a college hockey game he was attending with his daughter, Aleah, Oshie’s stepsister. Tim ended up at a diner, his phone dead because of the cold, and was unable to get home until early the next morning.
“I didn’t know where the hell I was,” Tim Oshie said.
Visits to doctors two years ago revealed that Tim Oshie was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
He is 50 years old.
“It was tough. But I think anyone that knows my dad on a personal level knows how positive he is and it seems like nothing could ever go that wrong,” T.J. said. “So, I guess I feel like it still hasn’t hit me yet. I still feel like he’s going to be here forever. But everyone in our family is very positive, especially him, and I think that goes a long way in dealing with everything.”
These days, Tim Oshie is staying with family in Everett, Washington, where T.J. was born. The patriarch of the Oshie clan talks with enthusiasm about his family, which includes four children. T.J., 27, is the oldest, skating since he was 3 or 4. There’s Taylor, 25; Tawni, 23; and Aleah, 11, a fifth-grader who also loves to play hockey.
Courtesy of T.J. OshieTim and T.J. Oshie got close when they moved to Minnesota after T.J.’s parents’ divorce.
Tim Oshie grew up in the Warroad, Minnesota, area. His parents were not well off by any means.
“Sometimes they’d have to wait in back of supermarkets to get food or they didn’t eat,” Tim said.
Warroad is a small-town hockey mecca. They call it Hockeytown USA for a reason.
Henry Boucha, who is a second cousin to T.J., won a silver medal with the U.S. Olympic team in 1972 and is in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. And the Christians — Bill, Dave, Gordon and Roger — are all Olympians from Warroad.
And so is T.J. Oshie, having made his mark in the 2014 Sochi Games with his shootout prowess to help the United States beat Russia early in the tournament.
At 15, T.J. Oshie moved to Warroad with his father. At the time, Oshie’s parents had split and he and his dad moved in with the Boucha family for several months.
“Henry always had a rink in his backyard,” T.J. said. “That’s when I first started falling in love with the game.”
Boucha has great admiration for the Oshie family.
“Well, I think when we all heard [about Tim's diagnosis], it was very pitiful because he’s such a great man, not only to his family but to hockey as well,” Boucha said. ”It’s certainly something to step forward to. And we will [support them] all the way down the line.”
The Oshies were always a tight-knit family, but moving back to Minnesota with his father cemented something different for T.J. and Tim.
“We were really close,” T.J. Oshie said. “But that’s when we started becoming buddies, even though we had been our whole lives growing up.
“He was always playing with us. He was always involved. He was always making sure that we had fun. Then, when we went out [to Warroad], there was just a little bit more one-on-one time, and the bond grew a little bit more.”
In T.J., Tim sees a lot of his own parents’ personalities and the lessons they passed along.
“He has a gentle heart,” Tim says of his oldest son. “And that has a lot to do with Grandma and Grandpa Oshie.”
Courtesy of T.J. OshieT.J. Oshie is the oldest of Tim Oshie’s four children — two boys and two girls.
Tim recalls T.J.’s first NHL game, in early October 2008.
“I can just remember all the heartache and all the successes and all the turmoil,” Tim said. “He held steadfast through a divorce. All those things that he had to embody as a 21-year-old person.
“He’s the leader of our family.”
When Tim was a child, he moved to Anoka, Minnesota. Many of the streets were named after minerals, and he lived on Yttrium Street. Chris Prosser lived across the street. Prosser recalled Tim as the organizer of the street, gathering kids and assigning them to baseball or football teams that would play against other kids from other streets. They’d fashion uniforms out of T-shirts with logos and names written on them with marker. They were known as the Yttrium Tigers.
After Tim and the rest of the family had moved to Everett, he would bring hockey teams he was coaching east for tournaments, and he’d call Prosser, who was coaching his son, Nate, for tuneup games and practices before the tournaments. Later, Nate Prosser attended Colorado College while T.J. was a star at North Dakota, and now plays for the Minnesota Wild.
The two fathers would bump into each other and chat, have dinner, maybe get in a round of golf.
“I watched a lot of games with Tim,” Chris Prosser said.
When he learned of Tim’s diagnosis, it brought to memory the sudden loss to cancer of a mutual friend, a boy from the neighborhood perhaps 15 years ago, and the conversations he and Tim had about the sometimes fleeting nature of life. While he hasn’t noticed any of the symptoms in his contact with Tim, Prosser said he knows Tim’s attitude has remained constant.
“Tim is a very positive individual. Always has been. Always will be. I know the Oshie family is a tight-knit family,” Prosser said.
“He’s in a good spot being in that family.”
An estimated 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to rise to 15 million in the next 35 years. Someone develops Alzheimer’s in the U.S. every 67 seconds. The overwhelming majority of people with Alzheimer’s are over 75; in fact, less than 4 percent of the population under 65 has Alzheimer’s.
It’s not unusual for people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s to withdraw, to endure in silence. The attitude surrounding the disease comes in part from the unknown, how it will manifest itself, when and how often.
The Oshies have not hidden. They were front and center at a recent charity walk in St. Louis to raise money for research and to raise awareness about the disease. Tim had prepared a statement to make before the walk but decided to speak from the heart instead. He told those gathered that he is going to fight the disease until the day he dies.
Angela Geiger is the chief strategy officer for the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association, which oversees the national walks to help raise money and awareness for the disease, and was on hand that day earlier this fall. She was moved by what she heard from Tim and T.J. Oshie and believes they are going to make a difference.
“It could not be more important” to have families like the Oshies step forward and talk about the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and what it means to their family and how others can get involved, Geiger said.
Hearing from the Oshies, or other sports families with the disease such as Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and his family, or college basketball coach Pat Summitt, is integral to getting people involved and, by extension, getting more federal funding for research, she said.
“It lets people know that they’re not alone,” Geiger said.
There has been a change in attitudes toward the disease but, with the expected exponential increase in cases, the economic impact of on families of treatment and care for loved ones and the health-care system as a whole will be “crippling,” unless further gains are made and made quickly, Geiger said.
Courtesy T.J. OshieT.J. Oshie attended college at North Dakota and was drafted by the Blues in the first round of the 2005 draft.
For Tim and T.J., it was a case of believing that being proactive was better than being reactive, or not reacting at all.
“It’s a very scary thing,” T.J. Oshie said. “It’s a hard thing to deal with, and sometimes, it’s a frustrating thing to deal with. But the more that people can come out and talk about it and share their stories and more awareness that there is, the sooner we can get something to start curing this.
“We have nothing right now as far as getting rid of it. With all the medicines and all the doctors in the world, I think it’s something that hopefully we’ll be able to stop — and get rid of sooner than later. So that’s why we talk about it, that’s why we’re open about it. Maybe not soon enough for my dad or for me, if that happens to be the case eventually down the road, but hopefully for my kids and my grandkids.”
Tim said he has had great medical help, and there are days when he wonders if he has the disease at all.
But there are the times he’ll forget things that happened 10 seconds before.
“It’s a weird disease,” he said. “I can remember all of my childhood stuff.”
And days that begin with great focus sometimes change as the day goes along, sometimes leaving Tim worn down and heading to bed early.
An articulate man who used to write and organize sporting and entertainment events now finds himself searching.
“Sometimes I just can’t find those words,” he said. “And they used to be right on the tip of my tongue.”
But, he insisted, he does not dwell on what might lie ahead; he remains positive about his life in the here and now. He is learning to put things like his keys and wallet exactly in the same place so he always knows where to find them.
“I still feel good,” he said. “I don’t think about it.”
After all, he added, he might be just 50, but he feels like he’s packed in 100 years of living. It’s a state of mind that doesn’t surprise his hockey-playing son.
“That’s just how Coach Osh rolls,” T.J. Oshie said with a grin.
“That’s how he’s always been. He’s always rolled with the punches. He’s always been good at keeping things going. He’s always been good in these situations. If he was the other way, I think it would be harder on everyone else, but he handles it really well.”
That’s not to say any of this is easy. It’s not.
“When you sit down and really think about it, that’s when it gets really sad. And it gets tough,” T.J. Oshie said. “The normal, everyday things — I tend to be just as positive as he is. So, I guess together, we kind of team up and look at it as we’re just going to enjoy the here, the now, and we’ll take care of everything else.”
As for his own future, it’s natural given that the disease has revealed itself historically in the Oshie family that T.J. might wonder about what lies ahead for him. Those who have a parent, brother or sister with Alzheimer’s are more likely to contract the disease. But taking a cue from his father, he prefers to focus on what is real.
“It’s kind of in the back of my mind,” he said. ”But I don’t want to live my life knowing that something’s going to happen down the road or being worried about something like that. I’m just like my dad: I’m living in the moment, I’m positive about everything. Just enjoying the here and now.”