Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mixed Blessings

The week before last, my son, Colin, and I flew out to Boston to attend the memorial service of Alex's youngest brother, Richard.

Richard had been enduring the increasing indignities of Parkinson's Disease for about 20 years (give or take).  The last few years have been so hard for Richard, and for all of us who care about him. Certainly it was rawest and hardest for his wife, Margaret, who cared for him at home until the very end, and his children who have watched him change from being a lively, gregarious, hilarious, outspoken, and very committed human to a man who struggled with all of the little and big things that define quality of life. It was beyond cruel to see someone gradually robbed of his ability to express himself and move gracefully in the world, and to see such a self-reliant man become utterly dependent on aides and family and friends to get through a day.

Because of our own challenges these last few years, visiting him would have been all but impossible for Alex and me, so we have had to get information second hand. What I do think is true by all accounts is that until just the very end when he had finally just worn out, Richard bore it all with wit and humor. He was not a made-for-television  hero. He got depressed sometimes, and angry sometimes, and bitter sometimes - that's the reality of this disease. It stinks. That they were all able to find joy in the midst of all of the struggle is just about what the power of love and commitment do to us and for us all - but I don't think any of us can imagine making peace with the disease.

In some ways, Richard and Alex are like two sides of the same coin. Alex was certainly always the cautious older brother - careful, measured, reflective. Richard was the wise guy. He was direct, and to the point, and he took huge risks - some of which paid off very well for him, and some which would have made Alex curl up in a ball and hide in a corner. Because the two brothers  were so very different on the surface, it made for some very lively conversations. Sometimes when Richard would regale us with a story of a deal he had made, or a close call, Alex would listen with amusement and amazement. They were good stories - but they could have been stories from another planet. And I don't know, but I can pretty much imagine that when Alex would talk about literature or poetry or his odd foreign films, that Richard felt the same way.

But though their tactics differed, Alex had a deep respect for Richard. He was more than impressed by Richard's acumen and insight, and if "the art of the deal" was part of what drove Richard, it was always allied with his love for his family, and his genuine wish to provide for them and protect them - and that made all the more lovable. And they both loved good stories, great food, and fast cars - that seems to be part of what defines a Houlding.

So when I learned that Richard had died, I felt the sorrow magnified immeasurably by the realization that Alex would not be able to grasp the fact, would not be able to appreciate the gravity of the situation, would not be able to mourn, and would not be able to join the family to celebrate and remember a life lived with such grit and wit. Colin and I had to "represent," and it was just heartbreaking to face that cold hard fact.

In my list of things that this terrible disease has taken away from Alex, this is a pretty bitter one. Richards' existence has no "present" meaning for Alex. That is the very painful reality of how his mind and emotions work now. 

So we flew to Boston, and met up with the Houlding extended family - several had come all the way from Hawaii, some from Colorado, New Mexico, Washington, and various places "out east." They showed up. We hugged, We laughed. We cried. We drank. We remembered. And we did it all without Alex. His absence was palpable at so many points, and we all know that there will be another gathering  in the not-too-distant future for Alex. That threat hung like a cloud over an already too sad gathering. It is cruel and unfair and it's just what we all have to deal with.

When Richard died, a handful of people said , "It's a blessing really." Boy - does that rankle. And of course, when it was said in my hearing, all I could think was , "Is that what you're going to say when Alex dies, too?" Because although those words are spoken as way to comfort, they are also a way to control the narrative and put all this misery into a "safe" place. 

None of us really think of this as a "blessing." No one wanted Richard to die this way, No one wants Alex to die the way he will. Not wanting someone to live with almost unfathomable suffering is a long way from finding it a blessing. I think we can all accept that it was just impossible for Richard to hang on anymore, so letting go is what he HAD to do. I think we have made peace with that for Richard, and we are getting there for Alex.

Here's where I think the REAL blessing is.

When we all gathered together to remember and mourn the loss, the love and comfort we all shared together was pretty miraculous. From the oldest generation down to the toddlers, we were all going through it together - side by side, each in our own way. For those few very precious days, time had a completely different pace and meaning. Just being there together was all we could do at that point - but it was everything.

There is a great photo of all of us after Richards' remains were buried, and it is a very lively group. We did a lot laughing together. As I looked at that room and took it all in, I realized what a great time we were having, and how very much we were enjoying being together and listening to one another (and goofing off together).

You can't wait until all the edges are smoothed or all the  frayed edges are knitted together before you can live. You have to live, and live completely, in the middle of all the mess. Because it's all a mess, and it's always going to be. There really is no better way to be than just the way you are, and no better time than right now - this very minute. I know that's not a particularly novel or fresh thought - but I felt it in my bones while we stood there together. 

When I got home and saw Alex, I wanted so desperately to share it all with him, and it was just impossible. But what I DID have was a wonderful photograph of his siblings taken a little more than ten years ago. Richards' disease had already made its presence felt, and some of what would define Alex would start to change not long after that - but they were so obviously having a wonderful time together the day it was taken. I showed him the picture and we said the names of everyone and each time we got to the end of the names, he grinned, and we started over.

It might not seem like a lot - but right then, it seemed like everything.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

How is Alex Doing?

It has been just two months since we moved Alex out of our home, and it I think it is the most confusing emotional adventure I could never have imagined. In any given day, we go from guilt, depression, amusement, grief, acceptance, appreciation, peace, anger, fear, worry - you name it. And the feelings come tumbling one after another, and they get mixed up in each other, too - so when people ask us how we are doing, it is a seriously difficult question to answer.

So first, let me tackle the other question I am often asked, "How is Alex doing?" And I have to say that's not a very easy question to answer.

First off, I don't see Alex every day.  I hear over and over again about the saintly family members (usually husbands and wives) who  go see their loved one every single day. Well - good for them. I work full-time and I still play my violin for pleasure and I still go to yoga classes and workshops - oh, and sometimes I like to spend time with other family members or friends NOT talking about, thinking about and/or worrying about Alex.

Sometimes when I get there after a long day of work, he is already in his pajamas, ready for bed, and completely out of it.  The house he stays at goes very quiet in the evenings. The other residents are often sitting in lounge chairs, wrapped in blankets, and either passed out cold, or only semi-awake - and when Alex is awake and about at that time of day, he is usually sitting at a table coloring, or  crawling around on the floor, kind of trying to do his pushups, or he, too is passed out while the Hallmark Channel plays softy in the background.

So - that can be a pretty depressing way to end your day. If this were a Hallmark movie, then he would brighten up when he sees me, and I would wish him a good night, and he would nod off to sleep, glad that I stopped by. But this is most definitely NOT a Hallmark movie - and he is often so absorbed in whatever he is doing, that he really barely notices that I am there - or even worse, seems kind of annoyed that I am in his way.

Most of the time when I get there, he IS happy to see me, but it is also way too easy to read too much into all that - one way or another. And I do not think that means that when I am not around, that he actively misses me. So on the whole, I think he is reasonably happy there, and that his life has a kind of rhythm that works for him. It is hard to imagine that this is enough of a life for the man who was always so curious about the world around him, and so active. But that's really where he is now.

The staff is SO good to him. They take wonderful care of him, they genuinely enjoy him, and he is relaxed around them.  That is everything we could have wanted for him at this stage, and it still about the crappiest thing you could ever want for someone you love.

On the weekends, I pick him up and take him out for hours at a time. We'll go home and have a dinner together, or I will take him on errands with me, or if the weather is nice, we will go for a walk. But he cannot make the distances he used to - he is having trouble coordinating his movements, and when he falls (and he does sometimes) it is very hard to get him upright again, and I need to get help. How does he feel when that happens? I really don't know. I think he is confused about it, surprised by it, then he just moves on to the next thing. 

When I take him out in public (to a grocery store or the dry cleaner or the car wash), it is clear that he is not "normal," and his odd behaviors, unkempt appearance, and the drooling can make people either recoil a bit and put some real distance between themselves and him, or give me a wisely pitying look (yuck). I do get it, though, because it's hard for US to know how to engage with Alex, and we have been living with this disease for 5 painful years. Sometimes strangers are amazingly kind and understanding in his presence, and that can be breathtaking, too. But mostly the world around is not well-organized for Alex and me, so it can be difficult to take him places.

And then there are moments that take me by complete surprise. Today, for example, while we were running errands, I was listening to  Shostakovich's 3rd String Quartet  (my latest musical obsession) in the car.  I need to keep him occupied when he is in the front seat of my car, because otherwise he tries to open the door while the car is moving. So I handed him the liner notes, and explained what each of the movements we were listening to were about - and it seemed like he was REALLY paying attention, When we got to the elegy, I told him that is was about all the people Shostakovich had lost in the war and purges, and that sometimes when I listen to it, it breaks my heart a bit because it is so very sad.

I never know for sure if Alex is really listening to me when I talk - I have misjudged it one way or another many times - but I did feel like we had an opening for just a minute. And when I dropped him off and gave him a good bye kiss, he hugged me very tight, and said, "I love you, " (which he never does) and I thought I would simply never stop crying.

Is he still Alex? Somewhere in there he still is, but  mostly we lack any way to reach him. To imagine what the time we spend with him "means" is a real head game - and it doesn't actually help. And, I would like to report that holding his hand or stroking his arm seems to bug the crap out of him sometimes. ( Educational materials for "caregivers" often emphasize this importance of this kind of touch - like it's some kind of magic bullet that will enable you to connect with a loved in. Rubbish!)

Am I glad we moved him? No.
Am I sorry we did it? No. It needed to happen. He needs to be there. It is a good place for him - AND it sucks.

On the dark days, do we all wish we would all be released from this drama?   Yes.
Do I want him dead? No.
Does he know what's going on? Yeah - No. Sometimes. Mostly not.
Is that a relief? Oh no, not at all.

So he is on his own path. And sometimes, we "get" him, and sometimes we don't. And sometimes, during the day, when things are busier at Breck, Jenny will send me a photo like these
and my heart will melt, and I will feel like he really IS having a good life. Or anyway, the best life that he possibly can with the capabilities he has - and that has to be enough, because that's all we've got.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Art of Letting Go

These last weeks have been such a jumble.

As I mentioned in my last post, Alex was evaluated for hospice, and it was determined that he meets the criteria. Because of this, we are now receiving all kinds of extra help  and much of it is very welcome. But with the help, comes the realization that we have to face things that I would rather defer, and while no one can say how long Alex has left, it is clear that he has begun to let go. 

Changes in function used to be more dramatic - but these days, they just pile on, little by little. So much of his thinking self is gone, that it is hard to see what else this disease has left to take. Alex is not yet completely mute - but he speaks very little, and in an average day, he might be able to answer only a few questions. I think he still comprehends - but he just cannot retrieve words easily, unless they are part of a song, or a rhyme that he memorized years ago.

With this illness, we will reach a point where Alex will no longer comprehend, where he will be either completely mute or nearly mute, and bedridden. There is a tipping point at which the damage to the brain causes such profound impairments that the physical body just cannot be managed. It is technically true that people don't die of FTD - they die from the effects of FTD by choking to death, or becoming unable to fight off disease, or sometimes just falling and injuring themselves. But FTD is the reason those things happen, so sometimes I think the medical profession is splitting hairs when they talk about this.

It is my hope that when we reach one of those last stages, Alex will no longer be interested in eating.  If/when that happens, I think he will be telling me in the only way that he can that he is really, truly done. We will honor that, and let him go. Everyone I have talked to in the caring professions tells me this is an easy and good way to die - and I want to believe that we can help Alex to an easy and peaceful death.

I do not want him to go on getting worse -  and I do not want him to be dead. And really, I have no idea how to help some one die. The thought of it terrifies me and while I know with all my heart that I want to and need to be by his side to see this through, I cannot even imagine what that will really be like.

My father  liked to set up thought exercises for us, and last week I recalled one that came right from his high school philosophy class. He asked us:
"Imagine that you are in a situation where you know you have only two hours to live. No one is going to pardon you. There is no hope of escape or rescue. You are simply going to die. And it is irrevocable. And you know it. How do you imagine you will spend those last two hours?"

He had asked his students, and he asked my brothers and me. We started out by thinking of all the ways we would escape the situation, but he would not let us off the hook and reminded us that even thinking that was futile. We  moved off of that point, and then tried to come up with lofty and high-minded things - I suppose because when your father is a teacher, you want to give the "right" answer.  So we said we would do things like pray for two hours, or really spend two hours appreciating all of the beauty in the world, or writing a good-bye letter to our loved ones.

My father wanted us to think harder and he would not let us off the hook with facile answers. So he said, "Could you imagine that you might simply be paralyzed by fear? That perhaps  all you might be able to do in those last two hours  is be very frightened and unable to think about anything else?"

This was meant to provoke more thought and discussion, but I remember thinking that he was probably right and it seemed like a really radical way of thinking.

And now Alex is in hospice, and these questions are no longer theoretical for us.

When the hospice team finished their initial assessment, and determined that Alex is indeed eligible for this service, I was physically sick. It is terrifying. It is visceral. It is also absolutely the right thing to do.

The kindest and best thing to do at this point is to let the disease take its course, and make sure that no one tries to do anything "heroic" like administer CPR or haul him in for an emergency surgery, or even set him up with a feeding tube. This is the moment where we have to face the reality that there is not a pardon or reprieve around the corner, and that whatever unmeasurable amount of time Alex has left, we intend to focus on making his days as good as they can possibly be.

Every week, a hospice nurse shows up and checks Alex's vital signs, and asks us questions about how we are doing. If we need a drug to provide comfort, it shows up by speedy delivery. We now have a supply of medicine that is simply waiting for the day when things get really worse, and we need to step up to keep Alex comfortable. Knowing that those drugs are in my house feels like being right in the middle of my father's imagination exercise. And just in case I forget, every  week the visit from the hospice nurse (who is WONDERFUL, by the way) reminds us of where we are heading.

So at first, being the ACTIVE person that I am, here was what I thought:" If we only have 6 months left, working backwards from that, how many things that Alex would love to do can we squeeze in before he shuffles off this mortal coil?"  It's such a GOOD story to tell yourself - and it's a lot like a Hollywood movie, and a lot like the "correct" answer to my father's thought exercise.

But here's the deal. What I think Alex would like to do in his last 6 months on earth is not anything like what the OLD Alex would have loved to do. That is not the Alex in front of me. The Alex who lives in my house now is looking for steadiness and comfort and predictability. A cruise to Alaska or a trip to the best restaurant in Chicago are simply not in the cards right now. He would be far too anxious about all of the uncertainties, far too bothered by things he is no longer able to understand, and much too indifferent to the big picture to really appreciate the scene.

I have tried to imagine ways we could still take him to some of the places he once loved. We would all need to adapt tremendously, and be prepared to change our plans without any notice, but I could see a way to do it, and I would do it for Alex if that was what he wanted.

But when your brain cannot focus on things, when traffic rules don't make sense to you, when noisy restaurants and crowded airports make you anxious, and when you really can't understand what people are asking you for a good part of the time, when your brain cannot will your body to do the things you want to do, and when you can no longer take care of even the basic tasks of daily living, how much zest will you find in a "bucket list?"

Today we took what I think will be our last trip to Mayo. It was the official close out visit for the study, and it was another profound reminder of where we find ourselves. I signed the papers today  that will send Alex's body post-mortem to Mayo for an autopsy. This will allow researchers to learn from what has happened to him - and if studying Alex's brain can help one other person on this planet, then I know that's what we have to do.

But signing that paper was just one more step in the journey that we don't want to take.

Next week, Laura and I will take a break from all of this, and Alex will go to a group home for a week where his cares will be other peoples' concern. It is a wonderful place. The people who work there love and care for the folks who stay there, everything is arranged for convenience and safety and comfort, and in the midst of all this loss, it is a bright and cheerful place just bursting with laughter.

And here it is - the point at which I think we know we will soon need to move Alex to this group home, because although his own home is comfortable for Alex,  we are simply not going to be able to provide all of that special care for him. And what I absolutely cannot face yet is the thought that if/when we make that move, that will be where Alex dies. It is unimaginable to me. The thought of it quite literally takes my breath away and makes me burst into tears. Of all the things we have had to face, this is the most difficult.

As I talked to the director of the home today, I realized that all the places where I am weak, she and her team are very strong. They absolutely DO know how to help someone die, and if I really love Alex as much as I say I do, then I will let him be with the people who can help him best at the end.  It turns out that helping Alex die is not so much about what I want FOR him- and everything about what he needs.

I am truly grateful that we can get this help and support and love, and that we will make Alex's last months, days and hours as good as they possibly can be for him. There is some real peace knowing that.

And by the way, I was right beside my father in his last hours on earth, and I do not think he was at all afraid at that point. He simply slipped away from us, and probably never even realized he was leaving. So much for philosophy exercises....

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


This is the end of  FTD Awareness Week, and as I read more about what other folks are going through, and reflect a bit on our journey, I am pretty grateful for all the wonderful help we get, and all the friends and family who have "been there" for us. It is weird to write this at the same time that I am getting to know the hospice helpers and volunteers who have arrived on the scene - but really, we are lucky!

I read a staggering thing last week. The annual average cost for a family taking care of someone with FTD is about $130,000 per year. That is about double what the annual cost of caring for an Alzheimer's patient is.   What accounts for the difference?

Allow me to illustrate with an example. At an FTD support group I attended, one of the other wives was telling stories about her husband "breaking" things - like, sawing off the steering column of the family car, and disconnecting the gas dryer in the basement because he needed to "fix" it (and yes, the house was evacuated as a result).

Other families get sued - because their loved ones behave so inappropriately that they need legal defense. And sometimes, people with FTD who get put into residential care get bounced out and relocated (repeatedly) because their behaviors are so difficult to handle.These are expensive problems to deal with - and this is over and above all the other healthcare costs and other day-to-day expenses.

Nancy Carlson, the children's book author (http://nancycarlson.com/)  speaks very eloquently about how her husband's failing judgement bankrupted their family.  Her painful journey was not helped by everyone's inability to see what was happening to him, and by the time they figured it out, he had brought financial ruin to the household.

As I said, we are lucky by comparison.

So far, Alex is more in the petty misdemeanor column.  He does try to shoplift from candy counters, so I watch him closely when we go out, and  I let him sneak stuff into the grocery cart because it's better than having him stuff things into his pockets and easier than battling with him in the aisle of a supermarket where we are certainly a very bad example for small children.

And I can see how easily Alex could really hurt someone - without ever having the slightest intention of doing so, or even any idea that he had done something wrong. He is still very strong, and completely lacking in restraint. I  discourage handshaking for this reason, and carry things (like chewing gum) to divert his attention when he simply refuses to let go of his latest victim's hand.

He is a Marxist now. There is no private property in Alex's view of the world,  and most of the time, we just deal with it. But when a person pours his orange juice into your half-drunk glass of beer - well, that's a line that no one should ever cross. Did I lose my composure? You betcha!

He also doesn't seem to understand personal space any more. Awkward...

I see things in Alex that others don't. I wonder sometimes if I am deluding myself. It can be very hard to see past the symptoms to the person underneath, but one thing that I think remains with Alex is a love of making mischief.

For example, our nephew Jesse cam to visit for a day. Alex had not seen him for a while, and Jesse now shaves his head. In the old days, I am pretty sure Alex would have teased him about being bald as an egg - like Uncle Harry.  Instead he drew the following picture of Jesse on the family whiteboard:

And a couple of weeks ago, we went the symphony, where Alex drew this amazing likeness of the soloist, Joshua Bell, who I assure you, DOES look like a bird!

I don't know where the cigar came from....but still...

And on the way to dinner with his brother, Andy,  the other night, we started singing WHEN I'M 65, and Alex sang, "when I get older, losing my mind.." He was absolutely making a joke, and since FTD literature will tell you that the sense of humor is one of the first things to go, it makes me think that wittiness that appealed to me all those years ago is going to be one of the very last things to leave him completely.

So when you see a strange older guy with a very peculiar expression poking people with a miniature American flag, we still see part of Alex. Not very appropriate at a solemn occasion, but not completely out of character, either.

Tomorrow is Alex's birthday. Last week he told me he was 38, and today he said he will be 42. Each time, I pointed out to him that our son is 30 - but that didn't bother him in the least. Consistency is a pretty artificial concept, actually, and it's good to be reminded of that sometimes.   

So, at the brink of what I expect will be his last birthday (or at least, the last one that will resemble a birthday in any way for him) I am just not sure how many candles to put on the cake. Pretty liberating, I think.

And once again, I am lucky, because if he's 42 then I just turned 30.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Giving it a Rest

Today we learned that the research drug Alex has been taking for two years has failed to meet any of the defined objectives, and that it provided no gains or benefits for the subjects who took part in the study.

Part of me is not at all surprised to learn this - I think it has been becoming clearer to  us that Alex is certainly not improving, and is not holding steady in any way that we can imagine, It's always hard, though, because we are just one family, and we don't know how this disease "typically" looks or acts - so even though it would be bordering on pure superstition, I think we were all holding out hope that is was doing him some small amount of good.   Knowing that's not true is a bit like getting sucker-punched yet again.

So tomorrow morning, bright and early, the hospice team from a local hospital  will be coming out to assess and evaluate Alex. The sad facts are that he has lost 20 pounds in the last three months, that it is becoming increasingly difficult for him to express himself, that he is losing more and more control of his body, and that he is more uncertain every day of the physical world around him and his ability to manage in it.

I think this officially means that we are not "fighting" this disease any more. In fact, we never really were I guess. It's complicated - looking back on all the little victories and tragedies that have made up this journey,  it is time for all of us who have cared for Alex to take some credit that we helped make some of the good stuff happen - and to give an IMMENSE amount of credit to the man himself for holding himself together so brilliantly for such a long time.

If you ever wondered why your school teachers made you memorize poetry and recite it - well, Alex is why. Because even at this advanced stage of the disease, he can recite stanzas from poems he learned when he was a child, and when he does, he connects to the words and himself and is happy.

And if you have ever wondered whether it is a good idea to stay physically fit, well Alex is why for that too. Because even now, even today, he went  for a bike ride with his best friend, Craig. Yes, it's changed - it's a tandem bike now, not the custom racing bike that he charged away on when I first met him. But it is something he truly enjoys, and I think that for some part of the time when he's on that bike, he feels a sense of the freedom he used to feel.

And if you ever wanted to know why you should care about music or art, then understand how much pleasure he still takes in singing with his friends at MacPhail or listening to music that he used to love. Is it the same spontaneous and rich pleasure he used to take in it? Obviously not  - but it still provides a measure of meaning for a man whose brain has trouble connecting to other things.

The power of the music taps into some essential part of his identity, and he is able to express expressing himself, And when he draws us pictures, he is finding a way to "talk" to us and himself that words can't quite do for him anymore. (And really, we are all naked under our clothes - I think he is just observing that for us).

He is still very much alive and trying to "break through" in whatever way he can manage to us. So- now our thoughts turn to making the time he has left on this planet as good as possible. I have no idea what the next set of challenges will look like, or how they will feel. And I would be lying if I said I was not afraid. I am. We all are.

So - I am sad the drug didn't work, but glad that Alex no longer has to worry about being a Smurf. For all of the thinking and planning we have done, I have no idea how we will actually navigate through the difficult days that lie ahead for us.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Unplanned Lessons

The last full moon marked the Hindu/Nepalese festival called Guru Purnima. Until last week, I did not even know such a festival existed, but one of my yoga teachers, Ali, told us this is the festival which honors teachers (gurus) - in whatever form they take.

This struck me, because my father was a teacher, and this holiday came right on the heels of the anniversary of his death.  He was obviously one of my first (and best) teachers. He always said that the job of the teacher was not to put light into the eyes of his students, but rather to turn his student's eyes toward the light. So his way of teaching was to challenge us - to challenge us to think things out for ourselves, to appreciate logic and reason, and to never stop being curious about the world.

He loved history and he loved talking to us about big ideas like what it means to be human, and what reality is, and whether there is free will, and whether there is a God in heaven managing human affairs. I felt so respected when he asked those questions of me as a child- even as he would prod me to think a little more deeply about the answers I gave, or ask me to explain myself more fully.

It's kind of inevitable then that I think the best teachers are those who challenge you. They rile things up, they make the world much more interesting and rich, and they call upon you to bring all of yourself to the lesson.

So if a guru is someone who challenges you and shakes you up and wakes you up, then that is pretty much what this disease has done to all of us. And as I reflected after the yoga class, I wanted to try to come up with a neat list of all the things that it has taught us - you know, something kind of inspirational.

Really, trying to write all that stuff turns into a whole bunch of clich├ęs about never taking anything for granted, being grateful for the small joys, blah blah blah.

Here's the REAL lesson in it for me - and the hardest one. It all comes down to learning to let go. It is a lesson that comes up over and over again with nauseating and heartbreaking regularity. With each new symptom or change, we lose a little more of Alex. And although I know better in every way, I DO cling, stupidly, angrily, stubbornly and impossibly, cherishing the glimmers of the "old" Alex when he appears. And when we have one of those breathtaking moments when it is absolutely impossible to pretend that the lost things are ever coming back, it is  agonizing.

My father's death was shocking and sad and terrible. I still miss him, I wish he were here to talk to me, I wish I could just mess around with him the way I used to, or talk about what we've been reading or watching or doing. But eventually, I have made a kind of peace with it. That seems somehow like "normal" grief.

I miss Alex every single day,and yet he is right here beside me, all up in my business, demanding attention. As he loses more capability, more and more is demanded of all of us. It is ceaseless and escalating - and good luck trying to live in the present moment when you cannot help but think , "It can't possibly get worse than this," when the one thing you can be pretty sure of is that it absolutely will.

Making peace with this reality is a big educational project. I have told myself for years that when awful things happen that are out of your control, you still get to choose what you do in response - how you react to it. That's all you've got. Turns out, I maybe have a bit more to learn about that.

Grief just takes you over. You don't choose it, you don't select it, and you absolutely cannot wish it away or cover it up. It will make its presence felt, and it will not let you go until you have felt it. And it will come back when you think you are rid of it, and it will re-appear on an otherwise perfect day to nudge you and maybe even swallow you up for a while.

And it turns out that ALL of the emotions that cycle around are not chosen. Becoming angry and yelling at a person who simply can no longer comprehend anger is like watching a Looney Toon unfold right in front of you eyes. Even though people who want to help through this will say, "Of course, you're not really angry at Alex - you're angry at the disease," I assure you that when I am angry, I am absolutely angry at Alex. And even though I know it's stupid and pointless, and that it will not make anyone happier or make anything better, I am still angry and disappointed sometimes. Just because I know better than to act that way doesn't mean that I will stop doing it.

So every day when I meditate, I set an intention to "let go." And by that, I mean that I want to try to let go of all of it. To let Alex go and gracefully accept that he has changed and that he will continue to change. But also to try to let go of the fear and the anxiety and the guilt and the stress, and all the rest of it. Every so often, I actually manage it, and when I do, I think I see a glimmer of the other really big lesson I have learned in this - that love really is stronger than fear. But it is a constant re-educational effort to learn to make room for it.

Over the next weeks and months, I will be trying to figure out how long we can keep Alex at home, and what we will do when he can't be here any more. At first, I could not even make myself think about that. Now I am making a plan. And somehow or other, I am sure we will work it out and manage it.

Last week, for the only time since he was diagnosed, Alex told me he just wanted to quit - that he did not want to live this way anymore, and I had absolutely no idea whether he actually meant it, or if it was really all about his not wanting to take another blue pill before he went to bed. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough -  I had absolutely no idea whether he actually meant it or not, but I was devastated. We have been working so hard on making his life as good as possible, and fighting against the worst indignities this disease brings, and always we have been doing it thinking that it would be what he wanted. I never doubted that. And so here was the first doubt, and I could not stop crying no matter how hard I tried.

But hey, the next morning, after a good night's sleep Alex was happier, and he had a good day, and we even managed a couple of laughs. So that's another big lesson - sometimes, you really can take this stuff way too seriously. The distance between tragedy and comedy is not very far at all, and I will always have better days when I simply lighten up and laugh at myself, too.

So those are my "inspiring" lessons. Sorry - not much anyone can use there to make a self-help book. But, if you are sitting somewhere in the course of this disease (or some other awful crisis) I will say that joy springs up on us exactly the same way grief does. Maybe not in equal measure - maybe not as much as it used to - but it still does, and when it does, it is very sweet indeed.

And more than ever before, I find myself moved suddenly and impossibly by the beauty there still is in the world. A beautiful piece of music, a perfect summer's day, something wonderful that one of my children says to me or does for me, an act of kindness - all of these things seem to be able to touch me more deeply and mean more than they ever did before. And sometimes when I look at Alex, I think I can see clear through to his soul.

Maybe that all would have happened without this disease staring us all in the face the way it does. I can't say. I have no other reality to experience but this one, but I believe that some of what it has taught us will stay with us for a long long time.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Changeling

It's a funny thing - we give ourselves a lot of credit for some specific personality traits. We think highly of people who exercise good judgement (whatever that means).

We are proud of our self-discipline, impressed by the ability to focus - and we assume that manners and  compassion and empathy are things we learn early in life and that they will  stay with us all of our lives. If anything, I have always assumed that with age, humans tend to become more compassionate as they navigate through the various changes in their lives. 

In my world view, being compassionate, being empathetic, learning to forgive others, and loving other people are traits I value above almost all else.  I can disagree with someone on almost everything, but if they are compassionate and empathetic and kind people - well then, they are "good" people.

So here I am, living closely with a man I love with all my heart - who used to have all of these traits in spades, and now does not. This very peculiar disease has really truly turned my entire world upside down in thinking about "character."  It turns out that once the right temporal lobe of your brain gets damaged enough, you are not able to "feel" the things that we consider such moral certainties.

In thinking about how to describe Alex, I am reminded of the book, "Outside Over There," that I read to Laura when she was little. If you don't know the story, it's about a big sister whose baby brother is stolen by goblins and replaced by an ice baby.  "So the goblins came. They pushed their way in and pulled baby out leaving another all made of ice. Poor Ida, never knowing, hugged the changeling and she murmured: 'How I love you.' The ice thing only dripped and stared, and Ida mad knew goblins had been there."

It is disturbing in ways I lack the power to describe. Emotional response has lost every trace of subtlety for Alex. It is not that he feels nothing - but only that the nuances are completely gone, and the ability to put himself in someone else's shoes no longer exists.

In all the  ways  I have been taught, Alex is no longer capable of being a "good" person. He will step on your foot, shove you out of the way, turn the lights out on you if you come up from the basement after him, take your place in line, pull the cat's tail, sneeze on your dinner, and not appreciate it if you do something really nice for him. He will eat all the cookies on a plate without ever considering sharing. If you look away for an instant, he will eat your cookies, too.

When people are shocked or irritated by his behavior, he takes on a funny look. In Alex's most recent medical notes, the doctor noted that Alex had a fixed affect that would best be described as "sardonic." (Since Alex has always had more than a bit of that going for him, some part of him might be pleased at that.) However, when someone has just taken food off your plate, and then looks at you sardonically when you get mad at him - well, let's just say it doesn't make you like him more.

But in the weirdest way, he is so unrelentingly easygoing about it all, that just as you are thinking about murdering him, you see something sort of holy about it. There is not a trace of malice in any of it. There is a kind of innocence in it - and every so often, it is hysterically funny. So we hug the ice baby, and he really does just stare (or maybe grimace), but what shows on his face is not a good measure of the person inside there.

He has lost his "filters." When he draws (and he draws often), the pictures are invariably rude and nude and totally inappropriate. He will draw them anywhere. On an airplane, he was busily drawing a woman with the most ENORMOUS knockers AND male genitalia, and the polite woman sitting next to him asked if she could take a look at his drawing. The look on her face....priceless.

By the way, if he is with a bunch of pre-schoolers, and has the opportunity to draw, he will do exactly the same thing. This can be hard to explain..

Our season tickets for the symphony are right at the front of the main floor of a hall that is famous for its amazing acoustics. I took him with me to see a performance of the Berg Violin Concerto a couple of months ago, and before it started, I told him that this was one of my favorite concertos. He listened restlessly for a while (the piece is challengingly dissonant) and then said loudly, "Why do you like this?" I shushed him, and wrote a note telling him he needed to whisper - but whispering is no longer possible. So I told him to draw a picture for me while he was listening,  and he drew a beautiful violin that morphed into a woman with big breasts.

Is he happy? I think so. I think he is not unhappy.

But I also think that all of his emotional responses are very blunted (except for fear and anxiety -which seem to have taken a firm hold on him). And for all of the philosophical talk about living in the moment - well, anticipating a good thing is a delightful  pleasure and it is one Alex no longer can experience. 

Is he still a good person?

There is an old Buddhist adage, "Good and bad are ways of not seeing." That's what I think. I think that if I worry about whether Alex is good or bad, I stop seeing the very real person in front of me. That person, with all of his oddities, needs my love and compassion and empathy even if he no longer knows he needs it.   And I humbly realize that my ability to feel these things is an incredible gift that could be stolen from me without much warning.

Carpe diem!