DEATH OF A DIARY
There have been so many columns, articles and memoirs written about Alzheimer's Disease that I was reluctant to venture down that road. Still, like so many other things in life, when it finally knocks on your door, it begs a reaction. So this is not a "Journal of Medicine" piece so much as it is simply a page torn out of the book of ones life.
Last week, my Aunt Rose was admitted to a local facility that specializes in the care of people so stricken. Most of us know, or have known, someone who has fallen into the Alzheimer's chasm, but it takes on new meaning when it strikes close to home. Rosie is my mother's sister, one of four children born here in Milford, NH to my maternal grandparents who settled here from Sicily. She married my late uncle, George G. Draper, fondly known to everyone as "G.G.", and had spent her entire life in Milford and neighboring Wilton, where G.G. was born.
They were the consummate American couple of post World War II. G.G. had been a mechanic during the war, working on the venerable "B-Series" bombers, and one of my favorite pictures of him showed him on a ladder, next to the nose of a B-24, with a can of paint and a brush, having just painted on another few "bombs", signifying another successful mission for that plane and crew. Straight out of the movies. Indeed, he reminded me much of Jimmy Stewart, as he was very similar in build, character and style. George and Rose married and raised two children of their own. The Draper family owned the local Chevrolet dealership when I was growing up and G.G. would take me for rides in the tow truck. America, Apple Pie, and Chevrolets.
As with so many families of that generation, every Sunday was a dinner, alternately at my parents home, or with Rosie and G.G. These are the chapters in life that roll so swiftly by that you barely notice their worth and impact until it is over. I spent every other Sunday at Rosie's my entire life. Playing with the toys at their house when I was 5 or 6. I still remember the big, metal "Dick Tracy" squad car that was my favorite and it would be the first thing I went for when I got there. As I got older, there would the mingling with cousins, or reading the paper and watching football with G.G. and the other guys. On and on, year after year, continuing as we all got older, married and were now attending these dinners with our own children. If only it could all be captured on time-lapse, the years rolling by, spring, summer, fall and then winter, and then another. In retrospect it is so beautiful, and yet intangible. It is not a precious coin that you can dig out from your hat box and admire. It is not a special shell snatched from a beach, that you can hold and coax from it a memory. No..."it", in this case, is life. It is a collection of memories, tied together, to create a picture. Alzheimer's takes big chunks of the picture away, and with them, apparently, the memories.
I remember in the movie "Awakenings", which dealt with the patients at a famous New York hospital in the fifties, I believe, that had lapsed into coma. There they would lay, week after week, year after year, motionless and seemingly without any thought and with no reaction to any stimuli. A doctor there experimented with the medication L-Dopa and found that some patients would "awaken", and there was great hope for a period, but then the program fell apart as the results were not sustainable. In the movie, two doctors discussing the findings consider the possibility that the patients, even in coma, are indeed thinking, just as normal people do, but are unable to move, speak or convey anything. One doctor said that the notion was "unthinkable". I'll never forget that. It is a haunting consideration.
And in some ways, this is what has happened to Rose. I have watched my mother, with great sadness, watch her sister slowly lose realization of the fact that they are sisters. Rose would increasingly talk about "her" mother, and eventually would say that she was going to Nashua Street. That is the location of the home where they grew up in Milford, and another spot where I spent a good deal of my early childhood. It is an intensely cruel deterioration. I am imagining what it must be like for my cousins to have themselves slowly become unfamiliar to their own mother. There is no pain, there is no noise, no screeching tires or a crash. Just this slow, creeping darkness taking over the brain of a loved one. Six months ago, nobody saw this coming, but Rose has become a danger to herself, and was too much for my cousins to handle having her at home. One of them lived with her, the other is married and living in Concord. There was fear that she would wander out during the night, or burn herself, or burn the house down. It is that inevitable decision that so many have had to arrive at, but it is a heart-wrenching affair.
It is also a sadness that casts it's net over the whole family because we all lose something. I have known for some time that my aunt was unsure of who I was when I saw her. She looks the same, is strong as an ox, is pretty content, smiling, but there is a distance in her eyes. Maybe that's the hardest part of all. I know those eyes have seen a lot. From a childhood spare of material things but filled with love, to a full and happy life amongst family and a small community where she is known and loved by many. I only hope that somewhere in that mental diary, Rose still knows that we are all here, grateful for the thousands of memories of times with her, that we still have.