My sister has it now, erasing her mind like the sea’s winds gradually eroding the dunes on Cape Cod where we played as kids. It still feels recent and raw, as if it were just last week that our father succumbed to Alzheimer’s, but not before it left his towering 6’4” frame unable to carry itself around or recognize itself in a mirror. That was twenty-fours years ago.

Now, it revisits, fully adorned in heartache and grief, this time holding my sister hostage to things she can’t remember and places she’ll never go. It’s his legacy to her, and it’s probably been lurking there since birth, coiled within her DNA like a viper ready to strike. Biding its malevolent time. Waiting.

3,000 miles separated my sister and me, and about 20 years. We bridged the gap in ages and miles with telephone calls and visits underwritten with charge cards. We shared a love of music, art, and family. Most importantly, we shared the same sense of humor that inevitably yielded to spasms of non-stop-belly-hurting laughter. But this Alzheimer’s thing doesn’t tickle any funny bones. There is no uproarious laughter echoing down the hallway, anymore.

A few months ago, I flew into Austin to visit her. The sight of my rental car prompted her to ask, “How was the ride from Massachusetts?” Explaining the car was a rental, that I didn’t drive there but flew, she remained in her thoughts for a time and appeared somewhat disturbed.

Then where’s your plane, she didn’t ask, although I still heard it.

Ten minutes later the same question emerged. This time, in the hope of easing her struggles to recall, I met her mind on its own terms and replied, “It was a lovely two-day drive”. She became animated, excited I drove such a distance just to visit.

Our week together was a continuation of such things and it was my job and my pleasure to answer in ways that roused happiness within her, even if it wasn’t true.  Her children say some days are worse than others. She cooks breakfast. She visits them. They visit her and take her to doctor’s appointments. She goes to church. She still remembers Jesus.

But for how long?

There is some progress in halting this disease in its miserable tracks. Researchers are experimenting with mice by creating colonies of amyloid plaques in their little brains. Then gradually depleting an enzyme called BACE1[1], their plaques disintegrate like cotton candy on your tongue in August. I like mice. But since animal studies can be poor predictors of success in humans, and it takes years for drugs to be developed then approved for human use, it’s not going to help my sister remember her granddaughter’s birthday next week or that granddaughter’s name.

How long will it take to get from mice to men?

Then there’s coffee. Yes, coffee. One study says you can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by a whopping 65% and delay its onset if you drink 3-5 cups of coffee each day[2]. My father was a big coffee drinker. His days began and ended with coffee. Straight up black coffee. He was not concerned if it had been sitting in the pot for hours and had the viscosity of motor oil before he reheated it and put it to his mouth, relishing every sip. But it didn’t help him. The Alzheimer’s prevailed.

There’s “The Mind Diet”[3] touted by the Alzheimer’s Disease Foundation[4] as capable of reducing the incidence of Alzheimer’s by half.  It encourages feasting on 10 brain-healthy foods in varying amounts each day, beginning with leafy greens. So, maybe it’s possible we’ll soon be able to eat our way out of Alzheimer’s, like a mouse devouring cheese in a trap before the spring mechanism triggers the metal bar to drop upon its neck.

Still, there aren’t enough leafy greens or mice in the world to save my sister’s mind from its inevitable descent into oblivion. Not today. I’ve watched this denouement of self before. I had a front row seat with our father and it’s a performance I’m not looking forward to attending a second time. The long, measured, daily goodbye to who they thought they were and all I love within them, is brutal.

Yet, amidst the discoveries and the promises of more, never is it made more clear that we are our memories. There is not a single human interaction or relationship that is not initiated and sustained without a memory. Not one.

We are each sunrise we recollect and each dream we recall and evoke. We are a lifetime of remembered ordinary things like daily showers, dirty laundry, grocery store meanderings, and to-do lists, merging in time.

And we are the love we remember to give.

 

References

Xiangyou Hu, Brati Das, Hailong Hou, Wanxia He, Riqiang Yan. BACE1 deletion in the adult mouse reverses preformed amyloid deposition and improves cognitive functionsThe Journal of Experimental Medicine, 2018; jem.20171831 DOI: 1084/jem.20171831

[2]Eskelinen MH, Kivipelto M. J Alzheimers Dis. 2010;20 Suppl 1:S167-74. doi: 10.3233/JAD-2010-1404.

[3] Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Bennett DA, Aggarwal NT. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimers Dement. 2015 Sep;11(9):1007-14. Link

[4] The Alzheimer’s Disease Foundation: https://ad.foundation/the-mind-diet/

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