I should start by saying I know very little about Alzheimer’s disease except for what I witnessed in my uncle who passed away some time ago. I am a writer, not a man of medicine. I know nothing about the neuro-chemical processes that brings on the disease. What I do know are words.
Tonight I saw a preview on demand for the movie Iris, a bio-pic about writer Iris Murdoch and her eventual succumbing to Alzheimer’s. I was about to rent the movie when I remembered that Something Special, a short story by Ms. Murdoch, drove me to write a long story of my own which eventually became my first novel that I was proud to have written. Two other novels I wrote prior to that were rather sophomoric attempts at the craft. I was young, really young, less than half as old as I am now when I completed both of them seemingly back to back. Those manuscripts were type-written long before I could afford a computer of my own. In those days I was one of the tech-dewy nay-sayers, a veritable rustic who believed the jury was still out on whether or not the word processor would replace the time-tested typewriter. I am the first to admit I was wrong. Ultimately, the long story I wrote after reading Ms. Murdoch’s story I workshopped in an undergraduate writing class. My professor told me to shelve the story I had written. “Let it simmer,” she said. “This is more a novel than a story.” She was right.
One night after having completed that novel (and making the ill-advised decision to self-publish it) I remember my uncle visiting my mother’s house. He still seemed to have all of his wits about him. However, he had wetted his pants and when he realized what was going on he began to cry. My uncle was a veteran of WWII, having served his country in the army. When the war ended my uncle returned home and purchased the home his father had rented. In old photo album my mother kept pictures of her wedding day; more than a few taken in the house my grandfather rented and later my uncle bought from the man who owned it.
My siblings and I have many fond memories of going to Southwest Philadelphia to visit my uncles (my mother’s two older brothers who lived there until each of them passed from this world). After the war my uncle worked and, perhaps ahead of his time, invested in IBM. When he passed, he had made considerable money in his investments which surprised my mother. I mention all of this because by the time my uncle died he no doubt had any recollection of his former life. Toward the end I would make the trek from New Jersey into Philadelphia to visit my uncle. With each subsequent visit my uncle always asked me “How’s the army treating you?” The first couple of years I explained that I had received my honorable discharge and was attending college at the time. But my uncle kept at me, believing I was still in the service. Soon, I caved and played into his deteriorating memory by assuring him that the army was treating me fine.
Over the years, like so many other people, I had my fair share of fears. Some unfounded; others completely grounded. Fear of sharks as a boy after the movie Jaws came out: unfounded. Fear of being sent to some shit hole country to fight Soviet soldiers: grounded (though me and my peacetime brothers in arms never saw combat and were grateful in that respect). Fear of flunking out college: unfounded (unless I completely gave up studying and handing in papers). Fear of being alone as I grew older: unfounded. No one is ever truly alone. Fear of ending up my like uncle: grounded, to be sure.
I used to think I was afraid of being alone. I used to think that I needed a woman in my life to complete me. For many years, especially after I gave up drinking, I was envious of those guys who studied hard, landed good jobs, bought homes and had families. Then I went through a spell where I thought property was a crime; and if not a crime to own a home I used to think that people were hoodwinked because I saw no difference between renting and paying mortgage. I was a fool. Somewhere around my 40th birthday I started seeing the light of day. I still don’t own a home; but my plan is to have one soon so my first home won’t be in a 55-and-over community.
What I fear these days is Alzheimer’s. It has taken me decades to become comfortable enough in my own skin to consider myself a writer. Sure, I work a full-time job. But now when people ask me what I do I tell them I write. Poems, stories, novels and for a long stretch I even tried my hand at screenplays (a dozen in all). The best part about writing screenplays that were never optioned or bought (though I did land an agent for one year who fought effortlessly to hawk one of my scripts) was having a story outlined and complete. Everyone of those screenplays could turned into a novel…not page for page, mind you. But you get the gist.
Anyway, back to my fear. I was thinking about Iris Murdoch tonight and how utterly horrible it must have been to create the body of work she did only to get older and no longer have any recollection of doing so. Is it enough for someone else to tell us what we have accomplished if we suffer from the disease? More than that, are we responsible for the lives we have led if we no longer possess the ability to recall memories of that life? I don’t know that answer. What I do know is that it would be terrible to one day no longer recollect having written the poems, the stories, and the novels I have written. But then I wouldn’t know it is terrible because I would no longer remember having done so. All I would have left would be manuscripts and computer files; each one as alien to me, perhaps, as the names of loved ones.
Of course, I understand the order of things. It is far worse to no longer remember the ones we love than it is to dismiss a body of work because we have no memory of writing it. Still, as any writer knows, it is more than putting words down on paper. Writing can be, at times, akin to skimming the surface of the divine, stirring the collective memory out there beyond what we see, think, feel, hear, etc and transmitting some self-discovery that carries with it a universal truth either experienced by the reader or at least one with which he can empathize. Worse than not being able to remember what one has written would be having no memory of those moments of self-discovery, of communing with something larger than our own selfish egos, at least temporarily, of having created something genuine.