From an early age, words were what I loved. I read early and steadily. I read children’s books, I read the magazines my father brought home for the office (he was editing Life at the time, and later American Heritage), I read Classic Comics, I read Uncle Scrooge, I read cereal boxes, I read Jules Vernes’ The Mysterious Island, I read anything and everything. I remember sitting on the toilet and needing to read something. A magazine, the back of a toothpaste tube, but something. (Have at that, you Freudian analysts.)
I’m sure it came from my father and mother, who were both writers, both editors, both great readers. They didn’t press it on me, it happened automatically. The printed word was a constant in our household, and in my dad’s later years it was no different, his house was filled with books and magazines and his own handwritten research and notes. And then, Alzheimer’s.
His aphasia (“Partial or total loss of the ability to articulate ideas or comprehend spoken or written language, resulting from damage to the brain caused by injury or disease”) came on quickly, even though he hid it from us early on, and in six months, perhaps nine, he was having a difficult time with ordinary speech. Any word might escape him, nouns in particular, and he took it hard.
A friend of mine is now suffering from aphasia. He’s the son of two friends, actually, a big healthy 25-year-old who was recently diagnosed with a large, benign tumor in his brain. He’s had it out, and you can see that it was quite the operation, leaving quite the scar. (If I can get that photo to upload)
I went up to visit him a couple of weeks ago in Columbus, on his second trip out of the hospital. Amazingly, there he was in a restaurant parking lot, standing and smiling, his girlfriend and other family members beside him. He was lively, engaged, hungry and cheerful. His movements are all coming back to him, some more slowly than others, but his biggest problem is aphasia, the same as with my dad. Ed couldn’t get a grip on the words he wanted to use, they were all elusive. (I’m happy to say that he’s doing much better now, and that his language is slowly coming back to him.)
His predicament reminded me of my father—but there was a fundamental difference. Ed is recovering from his aphasia. There’s a good chance that his brain, that amazingly plastic and adjustable organ, will compensate and rechannel, and do whatever it takes to give him back his speech. With my father it was all the contrary. His words drew further and further away, and his spirit suffered. Whereas Ed wants to talk to people, wants to take a look at the construction project he was in charge of, wants to laugh and whisper to his girlfriend, wants to inspect and figure things out—my father didn’t want anything.
It is the downward slope of Alzheimer’s that’s so devastating. It simply crushed my father that he could no longer read or write or eventually even talk. He gave up on starting sentences, after thousands of attempts that went awry, when he could not get hold of the words he needed. With Ed, it was heartening to me to sit across from him at a Red Lobster table and see his frustration, but also his continued desire to grab hold of a word. If he got close enough, one of us might come up with what he was trying to say, and even when we said the word, his face lit up. How rich it was to even recognize the word, to get that close to it.
Alzheimer’s might pin me at the end, I guess there’s a good chance of it. (There’s too good a chance of it for everyone, if we live long enough.) In the meantime, how lovely it is to swim in this bath of words that most of us share.