NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from April 23, 2007.
Research shows that I’m hardly alone in this, but I have a deep and abiding fear of disappearing into the fog that is Alzheimer’s disease. I’m approaching my 61st birthday, which, these days, is young. Horrible to contemplate, but NOT old. Actually even for the last generation it’s not much – my dad lived to be 78 and my mom 80. So even in WWII generation terms, I’d have a good crack at at least 20 more years. And when I think about dying I really worry more about the sadness of those I love than anything else. No one wants her life to be over, but unlike many of my friends, including those far younger, I’m not terrified.
Alzheimer’s is different though. If you read the statistics, the odds are pretty scary for all of us. Today the New York Times reports (actually I think a little late – if you don’t have Times Select try this story on amNewYork) on a new awareness program by the Alzheimer’s Association. Here’s the video(short.) That’s good.
It even includes Kate Burton, Meridith Grey’s mother (Grey’s Anatomy for those of you not (Grey’s Anatomy for those of you not addicted already.) Her character, in a series of almost unbearable episodes, suffered from Alzheimer’s. There is so much written about this disease and the risk to our nation’s future, one person at a time, but if the documents are to be believed research is far behind potential.
As usual it’s a question of money. And I know I should care about that. I guess I do. But what’s tougher for me is to face, almost daily, the small memory losses and forgetful moments of aging and not fear that they are all connected to the disease. People my age even joke about it – calling it “old timer’s” disease or “senior moments” but all it is is awful. To lose a word, see know the star of a classic film and not be able to retrieve the name, work a crossword puzzle (recommended to maintain brain “muscles” and besides I love them) and KNOW the missing word somewhere in your brain – but no place where you can get to it…. it’s all terrifying.
Think about it. Spouses who’ve shared years of generating memories suddenly seeing you lose yours; knowing daily that your access to those moments is disappearing. Children who’ve struggled to build strong and independent lives burdened with the emotional obligations created by a wasting disease in a parent. Friends self-conscious and uneasy on visits they know they should make – if they even have the strength to make them. Can you imagine anything worse – except the painful, protracted ending that cancer often brings?
As I write this, random thoughts wander through my mind. Most dominant are lyrics from a Bruce Springsteen (of course) song.
I don’t wanna fade away, Oh I don’t wanna fade away, Tell me what can I do what can I say, Cause darlin’ I don’t wanna fade away.
Yeah it’s about the end of a love affair but it’s playing in my head as a kind of Alzheimer’s anthem so you have to listen too.
The other things are really corny but right now I think I need to be corny. This one is part of what we read at the beginning of our wedding almost 36 years ago: In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it. It’s from William Saroyan’s play The Time of Your Life.
The other is from Our Town. And I know it’s old fashioned and sentimental. But as I look this terror in the eye, I know it’s what I have to do to keep it at bay.
I guess the answer to all this is to aim for the saints and the angels. Nothing is going to prevent the future from happening; not faith, not love, not Hogwart’s magic, not even the miraculous gift of children. So each day I need to be as present as I can. Whatever happens it’s a blow against the unknown and a prayer of gratitude for the privilege of being present and aware.