This letter to my son serves as the final chapter in my book about my father, “Brain in a Jar.” I thought it would be appropriate to share on this day—David’s eighth birthday.
When we returned from Singapore, in the summer of 2010, we had lunch with Grandpa Beau at the Perkins Restaurant in Naples. You were fidgety and loud, as any six year old would be. Beau, who was slipping fast but still fairly alert, stared at you the entire time.
I asked Beau who you were acting like, fully expecting him to look at me and say “you, gal.”
Instead, he pointed to himself.
David, when you read this book, and come to understand your mother and our family, I want you to know that you are not Beau and neither am I. We may have some of his genes, but we are free to make our own choices in our lives and not be gripped and paralyzed by things that may or may not happen to us.
You are nearly 8 and I’m nearly 47. I don’t want to spend the second half of my time on Earth worrying about whether or not I’m going to get Alzheimer’s disease. I’d rather show you the world than take supplements or do long math. I’m choosing my father’s love of adventure to pass down to you rather than his fear of losing his mind.
Beau once asked me to write a book with him about how to stave off “what his father had” (he made it a point not to use the word Alzheimer’s when referring to Bercaws) through his well-researched protocol. I refused as politely as I could. I knew his protocol wasn’t going to work. I think he did too. Alzheimer’s disease defined him. There was no escaping it. To him, Bercaws and Alzheimer’s were part of the same double helix. But he neglected—or perhaps conveniently forgot—that we have some control over whom we become.
This is who I am: A swimmer and writer driven by my own decisions and composition. I am happiest setting foot on new territory even if it feels like I’m walking on knives, like the Little Mermaid. Unknowingly, Beau spent his lifetime preparing me for suffering. It’s what he felt he had to do.
And this is what I had to do: Write a book about a doctor so fixated on losing his memory that it drove him to the brink of sanity; and, his gal who learned to swim in a sea of ambiguity. It seemed to me that writing about my life with Beau might be more instructional than a manual of how to take brain-saving supplements. The deep and terrible irony is that Beau lost many opportunities to make more memories because he was consumed with saving the ones he’d already accumulated. In the end, he remembers math better than his family.
When I visited Beau a few weeks ago, he looked at me long and hard. I sat down next to him. He stared right at me—or through me. I knew something crazy was forthcoming. He had that look. Typically he didn’t smile, though, when he was about to make a pronouncement, like when he asked me to kill him if he turned out like his father.
But Beau’s eyes were lit up and a big grin overtook his face. Does he remember me? Does he recall camping or canoeing? Does he love me?
Beau giggled and then, very purposely and slowly said, “Funny how things turn out.” I laughed with him.
Holy Vishnu, now my father gets it! Through a haze of tangled plaque, Dr. Beauregard Lee Bercaw suddenly sees his life with clarity. Perfect.
So let me be clear with you, my son. If I do get Alzheimer’s disease, it’s okay. We’ll have so many memories by then that we won’t be able to remember them all anyway. Forgetting my life won’t change my love for you.
When you and I rode the bus to your school in Singapore everyday, no one around us spoke English. There was Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic. I didn’t understand a thing that was being said. I liked it! I realized that you don’t have to comprehend everything. At that moment, on that public bus in Asia, I accepted my father for the person he was. I stopped trying to figure him out. And I, thereby, set myself free. I realized, too, that I felt closest to my father when I was in places he loved instead of by his side.
Memories fade. Will my life grow more worthless with each blurred recollection? Not a chance. Life is measured in love—not brain mass. I struggle to remember my deceased stepbrother’s face now, but I still love Craig as much as I ever did. And I certainly don’t remember the Philippines of my youth, but I adore it just the same. Feeling trumps thinking. Remember that.
I want you to go live your own life. As for me, if genetics repeats itself, it’ll be like that bus in Singapore. I don’t need to know what’s happening to be content. When all is said and done, I hope you will discover what Beau never did in all his searching.
It’s the heart that belongs in a jar.