Recently, I reneged on my commitment to co-teach a course at the Servant Leadership School, the “street seminary” of our Church of the Saviour community. I’ve taught there regularly for years. The content of one particular course that I consider important has, however, been difficult for me to present, frustrating, and anxiety provoking. A friend had suggested we teach it together, and I thought he might well make up for my deficiencies. But, although the first class is still four weeks away, I’m already fearful, realizing that I won't be able to pull together even the part of the course I’d agreed to take on without feeling anxious for the next three months of my life.
Ordinarily the thought of reneging on such a commitment would have provoked guilt and embarrassment. But I’m different now. Given the amount of clear-thinking time I have left, I’m not willing to spend so much of it in needless anxiety. In addition, my limitations mean I’m less likely to teach it well. My friend, I’m sure, is disappointed; I am, too. But both of us know I’m limited now.
This disease is always thought of as a tragedy. And I suppose it is, especially for those who have to observe and even more so for caregivers. But I wonder how much the Alzheimer’s patients themselves suffer. At my stage in the disease, of course, it’s all just speculation, but so far the disabilities—confusion, uncertainty around teaching, and especially loss of memory—aren’t causing real suffering. I’m sometimes frustrated, of course, until I recognize that it’s the disease that’s caused me to forget such-and-such. But then I just let it go and the frustration dissolves. Perhaps the apathy that accompanies Alzheimer’s blunts my motivation to care so much. Regardless, I don’t compare my current incapacity to my former capacity and, to the extent that I don’t compare, I don't suffer.
So hop ahead several months or several years and you see me sitting on a bench just staring or responding inappropriately to your attempts to talk with me. Certainly it would be painful for you, especially if you knew me well, but would it be painful for me? It seems quite possible that the very losses I will experience will make me cognitively less capable of recognizing them or caring about them. (See “Out of the Frying Pan Into the Freezer.)
For now, it’s all just speculation. I hope I’ll still be able to communicate some of the discoveries as the lights go out.