By Gerald Thomas
In Elegy for Iris, John Bayley chronicles the toll Alzheimer’s disease takes on his wife, Iris Murdoch:
The power of concentration has gone, along with the dignity to form coherent sentences and to remember where she is, or has been. She does not know she has written 26 remarkable novels, as well as her books on philosophy; received honorary doctorates from the major universities; become a Dame of the British Empire.
In the 1980s, my grandfather slipped away in such a fashion. The hot lava of confusion crawling across the recesses of his mind, severing the ability to know and remember. In the ashes family sat and sank until the only moment which mattered was the present. To visit him was to reintroduce one’s self with each conversation. Topics were limited to the basics of life. “What do you feel like eating now.” “How do you feel right now?” Anything beyond the immediate moment was swallowed up in the creep of the disease.
In some ways, my grandfather took on a courageous air. Make no mistake: this is not the courage of sappy sitcoms. This was real endurance, real life, real hard. No matter how rugged and hopeless a day may become for me, I have memories. I can conjure up better days past and hope that better days are ahead. I hear the voices of persons who have encouraged my past and by them are propelled through hardships to the future. When in far-flung Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I can call to mind my wife’s breathing in sleep, laughter in living, and touch in loving. I’m carried home and for the moment, it is enough.
Conversely, my grandfather seemed to face each day with a clean slate. When the nursing home tied him down and limited his activities, could he remember walking the fields, playing catch with his brother, losing his first wife to pneumonia, living through the Great Depression, the Great War, the Second World War, and the private wars with which we all struggle within and without? How does one get up each day and face the world without point of reference, hope of remembrance?
Upon his death, I believed it would be best to only remember Pa Pa when his mind was healthy and whole. I now know that was wrong. Part of the gift of his life is also remembering the stouthearted days of his twilight. For all our angst over being unrecognized by those we love, persons with Alzheimer’s disease must sense an equal strain in facing the unknown self. What bold steps are taken by people who awaken to find they are reborn—day after day.