A year ago I would have been terrified of this Alzheimer disease. All I could have imagined was suffering and pain for me and those who love me. But is it actually painful? Am I really suffering as the lights go out?
A number of years ago, I saw the movie Away From Her about an older couple in which the wife (Julie Christie) was suffering from Alzheimer disease. (Just to be clear, I remembered neither the name of the movie nor Julie Christie but googled “alzheimer, movie.”) In the opening scene Christie is putting her frying pan away … into the freezer, while her husband observes with an expression of pained recognition. Yesterday, I took a carton of soy milk and poured myself a cup, intending to heat it up in the microwave. I wasn’t until I opened the microwave door to put it in, that I realized that it was the carton in my hand and not the cup. I suppose I could excuse myself by invoking absentmindedness, but I’m not an absentminded person. Or, perhaps I should say that I wasn’t an absentminded person and now I am.
Perhaps that’s emblematic of this disease in its early phases:
- A friend tells me she does this all the time, but I didn’t.
- Doing my taxes over the weekend I had to use a complicated formula that I’d created a number of years ago. Luckily, the formula worked, but when I looked at how it worked, I couldn’t even follow my own thinking. Perhaps others can’t create such spreadsheet formulas, but I could.
- Perhaps other people couldn’t keep the books for their church. But I could.
- Few other people can tell I have Alzheimer’s, but I can.
So, is the present itself emotionally painful? Actually, putting the soy milk into the microwave was funnier than it was painful. Am I suffering as the lights go out? Actually, very few others can tell that my lights are even going out. And even for me, the dimmer switch hasn’t been moved very far.
No, I’m not suffering now.
I don’t think I’m trying to Pollyanna my way into denial by pretending everything’s okay. It’s not okay. I have Alzheimer disease and I know some of what’s coming. After the frying pan in the freezer comes getting lost, which leads to wandering off who-knows-where, which means having to have someone monitor me, which can lead to paranoia and anger, which pushes me eventually into an institution in which I die.
The soy milk in the microwave could have pushed me into imagining the entire painful sequence. But, this time at least, I was given the grace not to go there but to see the humor. The future will almost certainly be painful; the present doesn’t have to be.