Yesterday I made the drive from the Baltimore area, where I was visiting my brother and his family, back to New York. Along the way, thanks to the wonders of technology, I was able to listen to a broadcast from last year on NPR about Alzheimer’s disease. It featured a psychiatrist from New York who has brought together people in the early stages of the disease in support groups, including writing groups, in which they write their memories and then give them over to the doc for safekeeping. The disease becomes, at that moment at least, a giving-over of memory in generosity and love, rather than a losing of memory.
In the course of the interview, he spoke of the things that he has experienced remaining in the person, even as memory and ability fail. There is feeling and emotion. There is humor. And sometimes there is also wisdom, unexpected, rich, and beautiful. He then told a story about a patient of his who had marvelously surprised him in her wisdom at the end of their time together, on a day he was about to leave for vacation.
Something about his telling of the story, perhaps because a friend of mine has Alzheimer’s right now and I see what it means for him and all who love him, moved me deeply. I don’t advise driving 70 miles per hour on the Jersey Turnpike and crying at the same time, but hey, it happens.
Last night when I got back to New York, it stayed with me: the story, the emotion, the wisdom. It gave birth to a poem which I entitled “Going Away.” I leave it here for you. For me it says something, not only with regard to this disease but with regard to all things human, that there is always always always more to you and me than meets the eye or the ear.
She wandered his office, examining its
Contours and borders
The way she wandered her own mind now
Looking for familiar shapes, for doorways
She had walked through before, and
Windows that opened on familiar scenes.
He the doctor, but not here the healer;
She the wife, mother, grandmother, friend,
Here the patient, here the one carrying
The ever-increasing weight of the ultimately empty burden
Someone named Alzheimer’s disease.
Now, and for some time, Ann’s disease
Called sometimes the great unlearning
Unlearning from this moment backwards
Until: who was this man at home (was this home?)
who cared for her with devotion but
whose face and voice were those of a stranger.
“I’m going away for a little while, Ann,”
the doctor said, “I’m going to the beach.”
That stretch of sand, that moving tide in full light
United both their hearts, and she smiled.
“Ann,” he asked, “what is it you love about the beach?”
Silence and distracted glance; regretted question
He thought she could not answer,
Not frame a structure to hold the words,
Nor find the words to hang there, to
Bring meaning to light, intention to expression.
But then she spoke, quietly, looking eye to eye
Directly. She said, “There is a kind of music
That lives there.”
His heart leapt for the wisdom singing full
from the ruined choirs of this human brain.
One radiant moment in a darkened room
When the patient healed the physician.
John P. McGinty
PS – here’s the link to the radio program, at that time called “Speaking of Faith”: