"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Senescence–Not Quite Batty, But Getting There

My aunt went around the bend when she was 93, and I don’t remember how and when she turned the corner from my favorite relative to a woman who didn’t know what was what and who lived in a fantasy world which was far more interesting than the one she had left.

Aunt Beatrice had always been the center of our extended family.  She was the one who organized the elaborate Christmas and Easter dinners, corralled the most far-flung wings of the Gallos and Piemontes, and sat them all down for lasagna, fritters, and eggplant parmesan.  She was the perfect host – welcoming and accommodating to all, generous with her time and her patience – and the one to whom we all looked for advice and counsel.

Eddie Grillo  would have tried the patience of Jesus Christ himself, so obtuse and ignorant was he. He deliberately blocked Uncle Joe’s Buick because of some imagined slight, drank half a bottle of Beatrice’s anisette before the antipasto, told her two aged aunts that they were old crones, harpies of the worst sort, and belonged up in the trees along with all the other scrawny-necked vultures waiting for someone to die. Frankie Positano, Beatrice’s cousin and a middling operative of the Barolo Family, offered to kill the cocksucker and throw him into the deep end of Long Island Sound; but Beatrice kept a steady course.  Never once did her sails luff or was her ship ever in danger of foundering.

The doctors said that hers was an unusual case.  Alzheimer’s usually followed a sad, progressive degenerative course.  First the patient couldn’t remember why he was climbing the stairs; then he forgot to wipe himself after taking a shit; and then he couldn’t remember who he was.  But Beatrice was different.  One day she was making eggplant parmesan, corn fritters, and ham pie; and the next she was babbling about the Pope, male strippers, and the wrath of a minor saint. 

Her case was so unusual that the Department of Gerontology at Yale-Grace New Haven Hospital wanted to study her.  They were as perplexed as the rest of us as to why Beatrice had been normal one day, and balmy the next.

Whatever the reason, Beatrice was lucky for having hopscotched over the worst of senescence and landed squarely in la-la land.  Take Buck O’Reilly, for example, a relative on my wife’s side of the family.  A worse caricature of shanty Irish there could never be.  He was a loud, drunken, brawling layabout, given to loudly praying to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as he foundered on his pins at Duffy’s before coming home to beat his wife. The man in his right mind had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, but when early Alzheimer’s set in and addled his brain right proper, he became a sweetheart. He had nothing but compliments for his wife and children.  “Well, you’re surely looking pretty today, Mrs.O’Reilly”, he said as his wife fixed her bonnet for church. “Come along then, lads”, he said to his three young sons, “Time to say hello to the Lord”.

However Alzheimer’s worked on the brain of Buck O’Reilly, it did him a service and spared all those around him year of abuse. However, no one can completely escape the cruel clutches of dementia once it gets started, so eventually Uncle Buck went around the same bend as Aunt Beatrice.

The irony of it all was that the demented world of Uncle Buck turned out to be as mean-spirited as the original. In senility he was the same arrogant, clueless prick he had been before the ganglions in his cerebral cortex had started to go bad.  Everyone in the Sylvan Acres retirement home wanted him dead.

My Aunt Beatrice was lucky.  Not only did she miss senescence, that odd and frightful period of forgetting, guilt, and insomnia; but she arrived in a happy, sunlit world in which the Pope came to visit, Machiavelli listened politely to her complaints about determinism, and best of all Giorgio Armani came to visit, appreciated her full, sensuous form, and designed an afternoon tea dress for her. 

Most people of a certain age are not so lucky.  By the time they should be able to connect the dots and conclude that their minds are going, they are gone already.  A close friend of mine looked at his loving wife of 40 years and said, “We have grown so close over the years that we can finish each others’ sentences”.  What he didn’t realize, of course, was that when he got lost in mid-sentence,he  had no idea where he had started or where he was going, and his wife had to bail him out.

I hadn’t seen him for quite a while, and when I did I was surprised at how fat he had become. “Lyman doesn’t know when to stop eating”, his wife Sybil said. “He keeps shoveling it in like a lumberjack because he thinks each mouthful is his first.”

Another friend, unhappily not that much older than I, started appearing in society dressed like a clown – Hawaiian shirt, desert boots, cerulean golf pants, and a white dinner jacket – because his criss-crossed brain never made ensemble connections.  It said only “Hawaiian shirt nice. Parrots, tropical flowers. Blue ocean”; and then, separately, “White sport coat, pink carnation, all dressed up for the dance”; and finally, “Par for the course.  Looking good. Nineteenth hole”.  As in most cases like this, his wife had an abundance of tolerance and denial, and let her husband out looking like a fool.

After a certain age, most people begin to look for signs of senescence – the wondering why one is climbing the stairs; whether or not one has salted the sauce; or what the bloody combination is for the gym lock – but refuse to connect the dots. Anybody who has an active mind, occupied with Tolstoy and Milton, is bound to forget why he is headed to the upstairs bathroom, or whether he has salted the mousse a la crème, or what the bloody third number was on the Master Lock. By then it is too late, of course.  Insidious senescence has set in, and a bleak winter is in the offing.

I know a number of people my age who believe that senility is not a sure thing, and with proper attention and due diligence, the wolf can be kept from the door.  One friend does the Times double-crostics before breakfast and world scrambles before bedtime. Another plays Memory with his wife in the evening after dinner, struggling to remember where the pine tree is and the daisy to match it with its pair. All to no avail, of course. Optimism give way to reality, and everyone turns to TV.  Soap operas are so much more satisfying that Dostoevsky or Kant.

Those who still have all their marbles point to the aged geniuses of history.  Newton was almost 85 when he died in 1727 the equivalent of 105 today. Kant was almost 80, Pasteur almost 75. “Why can’t I do calculus when I am 100?”, these optimists reason. Parsimony, rectitude, and a low-fat diet are tickets to the next century.

Of course they are wrong. Until we have totally cracked the genetic code, achieve a full and complete interface between mind and computer, and developed perfectly human prosthetics, we will all deteriorate at a depressing, predictable rate.  “My body is falling apart at exactly the same rate as my ‘96 Camry”, said a close friend. “And I am in the repair shop just as often.”

So, I can only hope that I will go the way of my aunt – a myocardial infarct of the brain.  Suddenly, abruptly, and totally unexpectedly I will go from mental clarity to a foggy, impressionistic fantasy world.  My aunt’s favorite fantasy was the visit of the Pope to her retirement home. She simply adored his silk robes and pretty red slippers.

A psychologist friend of mine told me that my aunt was lucky.  Not that she had gone over the edge quite so precipitously, but that she had landed in a happy, pleasant place. “A lot of old people live in a world of impossible torture”, she said; and I remembered the day I had visited my aunt at Sylvan Springs and had heard the most demonic howls coming from across the hall.  Would that I could be so lucky.

I claim to my wife that my lapses of memory because I am on a ‘need to know’ basis.  Leave me alone with stories of great-cousin Joan from Limerick; or the legal implications of getting divorced in a communal property state.  ‘Need to know’ means less to remember and even less to forget.

As far as I can tell I am of sound mind and stable memory.  I can easily recall who did what to whom in each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays and can recite the first few couplets of Sonnet XX; and if I have trouble recalling the name of Aunt Julie’s maid, so be it.  It would be nice indeed if life’s little inanities – Percy’s son’s dereliction; Martha’s crumb cake; or Delmar’s merit badges – are the ones that go first; and that I still will be able to recite the soliloquies of Hamlet and Lear on my deathbed.  But I am sure that life will not go according to the score I have written.  My adagio will more than likely be sour and my presto will stumble. 

I am not sure which is worse – a scrambled brain which can recall bits and pieces of reality; or a disassembled brain which lives blissfully in a fanciful, unreal, concocted world.  We shall see.

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