“We are linked by blood, and blood is memory without language.”
—Joyce Carol Oates
Well you were quite the year, weren’t you? Tossing out mixed messages like a…a…..thing that tosses out mixed messages. Oh, I know! Like a brain clogged with beta-amyloid plaque that randomly traps information from going in and coming out. Indeed, 2011, you were the year of Alzheimer’s, literally and metaphorically.
As my father’s neurons became more tangled with tau and his brain continued to atrophy, he drifted further and further away. But the more I lost him, the more I morphed into him.
I started 2011 with terrible shoulder issues. My father and I have weak joins in common and both have endured surgery. The weird thing, though, is that my shoulders hurt more as he remembered less. When I tried to get an MRI—a machine my father loved and respected (yes, loved, because it could give him a deep view into his patient’s brains—–I freaked out. The machine itself was a stark reminder of my father’s once-great mind.
This year also saw me lose a bit of my mind: In a frenzy to be nearer to my father, I left my job and friends in Vermont. When my new job turned out to be evil incarnate, I rushed back to Vermont for sanctuary. Now I am embroiled in a minor legal dispute with my former employer in New Orleans for not treating me well. My father once sued his employer, Naples Community Hospital, for not treating him properly or respecting his work.
Upon my return to Burlington, I started to see a psychiatrist. I kept asking her, repeatedly, every session, “Do you think my father is sad?” Finally, she looked at me and said, “NANCY! I THINK YOU ARE SAD.”
Also in 2011, I wrote a piece about my father for the New York Times. After it was published, neurologists from around the country wrote to me about how they knew Beau at one time or another. I became a guest speaker at an Alzheimer’s Association event, I was consulted by other journals and professional organizations for my opinions on AD. Suddenly, I was respected just like my dad for what I knew about neurology and suffering. Finding my literary voice was a side effect of my father’s illness.
Yet, somehow, I also became more reserved this year. Quieter, like Beau as he got older. More introverted than extroverted. More likely to read and sleep than talk. More likely to be annoyed at “dumb-dumbs.” More frightened of unusual things, too, like parking lots and airport runways—-not your more typical scary places like the freeways and skies. I could hear Beau’s voice in my head telling me that the real dangers exist in where others aren’t looking.
When we were in Africa, 27 years ago, my father told me that hippos posed the most danger to man. I remember that trip like was it was yesterday and one fact in particular: Beau used his two weeks in Kenya to treat his face with a strong medicine that caused the pre-cancerous cells on his sun-damaged face to become red, inflamed, scab up and peel off.
“My patients have the right not to have a doctor who looks like a monster,” was all he said about the matter, which is why he did it on vacation. The fact that his face was so pink and peely actually got us out of some tight situations. I simply told anyone who looked like they might cause us trouble—when we were in remote parts of the country known for bandits and corruption—-that the “daktari ni mgonjwa, hatari.” (The doctor is sick. Danger!) They kept their distance alright.
Just yesterday, my dermatologist recommended the same (although somewhat faster) treatment for my face. So, like my dad when he was 46, I look like a “monster.”
Worse, however, is that I now hear the distant call of the monster that is AD. I’m taking more supplements with each passing year, just as my dad did, because he heard AD coming like a freight train. My greatest fear is meeting the same fate as him. A fate he predicted for himself, and feared for me because we have always been so similar.
I end this year with a shoulder worse than when I started. It’s like I aged two decades in 12 months. That’s what Alzheimer’s does to its victims, as well as their loved ones. What makes our case different, though, is that I turned into my father. Or, perhaps, I absorbed him like a parasitic twin. Beau, who taught me about such things and was obsessed with freak shows, would laugh long and hard at that notion. I certainly am.
Maybe he turned into me.