Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Going slowly gaga

When I was young and arrogant and in full possession of my faculties (now that I am older and arrogant and watching them slip through my fingers...) I use to say loudly that I would rather lose my mind than my mobility in my dotage.

I would announce this in that overloud way that people have when they think they are saying something profound that everyone would say... if only they had thought of it first.

In my mind's eye was my great-grandmother, who had once been a pillar of her community as the wife of a vicar in Zululand. By the time I came along, she was unable to walk without a stick.

I also pictured my grandfather, a bluff, brusque man who had always been early to bed and early to rise, who walked 5 miles twice a day with his dogs. But who had to admit defeat and pay a contractor to come and fix his roof, because he could no longer get up there to do it himself. Who had to part company with his car, because his middle-aged children had begun to refer to his 'parking' as 'abandoning the vehicle'.

To my mind they were dying in pieces, while their still-sound minds kicked and rebelled against the imprisonment of their bodies. I so desperately didn't want that fate.

I pictured myself comfortably lost in a world of my own creation, blissfully unaware that this kindly middle-aged couple were my son and daughter-in-law and forgetting that this irascible scamp was my great-grandson and not my son.

I forgot about the bit inbetween.

In recent years, I have met people in the early stages of Alzheimer's. People who have begun to lose themselves. People who are still cogniscent as they watch their congition being eroded. I knew a man whose wife searched high and low for replacement kettle that looked like the one he had accidentally destroyed by forgetting to fill it up before switching it on. Whe she failed, it was a catastrophe for him. When he walked into the kitchen, with his mind set on a cup of tea, the familiar sight of the kettle was no longer there to serve as a comfortable beacon. The new kettle was unfamiliar and consequently invisible. He would stand there, helpless. With no idea of what it was he had wanted to do and whether or not he had in fact achieved his aim. Was he coming? Or going?

A friend's mother has slowly been lost to Alzheimer's. She is happy, now, for the most part. Her husband is the one who is desolate. But there was a time when she was aware of her encroaching unawareness and it filled her with stark terror. Like in one of the Neverending Story movies where The Nothing consumes Fantasia until all that is left is a single grain of sand.

It is an unspeakably horrible thing.

As middle age and information overload take their toll, I find myself occasionally losing a word mid-sentence. I reach for it and it is gone. Poof! I walk into a room and wonder why I am there. Usually, a moment's pause will be sufficient for the word to resurface. And by retracing my steps, I can usually find my derailed train of thought and rediscover my purpose for being in a certain room.

But these moments fill me with dread. Is it the beginning of an irreversible slide? Is it inevitable? Will I be asking the same question every five minutes of kindly people whose names I can't remember, but who call me "Sweetheart" and "Mom". Will I be mourning the disappearance of my husband while some grey-haired old codger tells me over and over that he is that man? Pshaw! Who does he think he's fooling? My husband is a dashing young man without an ounce of fat on him anywhere. He opens the batting for a first division cricket side, you know. Not bad for a Swede!

Think of the prodigious minds we encounter in this space. Lucky for us, they are pouring their thoughts into a space where we can always come back to them again. Not so lucky for them if they find themselves reading an article and thinking, "Hmm. Not bad. I should look for more work by this writer. I wonder who it is?" Only to find that they are reading an article they wrote.

Urk. Sorry to be so depressing.

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