I accompanied my young friend to visit his father at the nursing home. I had known John for a couple of decades myself. He had been a professor of philosophy at the university. He was also much more: He was a man of great wit and wisdom, who spoke three languages, and played beautifully the Mondschein Sonata of Beethoven, and had a passion for the Superbowl, Lady Godiva chocolates, and red wine. It was always a pleasure to be with him. He was a versatile man, quick in his thinking, informed in his views, and pleasant to converse with.
But this time when I saw him – more than a year since our last encounter – he could not recognize me. He gave a strange smile to his son, but there was no indication he knew who he was smiling to. There was a blankness in his visage that almost frightened me. His face had none of the charm it once had, his eyes had lost their twinkle, all the zest that once characterized him had gone, yes gone for ever.
Where are those deep thoughts and strong opinions and the demands for rationality and clear thing now? I wondered. The brain had withered away, it seemed to me. The neurons were firing helter-skelter, I told myself. The man had fallen from the pedestal of admiration from all who knew him to the pit of pity. I know he would have been furious if told that anybody pitied him, because he was a man of great pride and dignity and self-image.
I was with the son for barely ten minutes, I could not stand it any longer. I retired into a corridor on either side of which there were rooms with men in a similar state of defunct cerebral health. Uncontrollably I began to shed tears, not for the ex-professor who had gone beyond the chores and challenges of life, aware no more of political squabbles religious fanaticism, and the fall of the stock market that deface the daily news, but for his wife and children who were taking turns, each twice a week, to pay him visits. They had gone through the pain of seeing John in that state. Now it was routine visits, mere formalities they felt compelled to do. They did not experience any more the jolt I had just suffered, for who can live with chronic grief without sliding into depression?
The thought of the Buddha came to my mind. Prince Siddharta is said to have seen men who were old, decrepit, poverty-stricken, and sick, prompting him to his quest for the cause and redemption of human suffering. Unfortunately, no philosophy or religion, no optimism or promise of heaven can clear the mind of one who has been struck by Alzheimer, nor bring back to the family those who have gone away this way.
August 14, 2011