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     Volume 7 Issue 29 | July 18, 2008 |

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A Roman Column

The Ultimate Thief

Neeman Sobhan

I was talking the other day to a friend about her mother-in-laws's recent death followed after years of having nursed a husband suffering from Alzheimer's disease. This brought back memories of my own mother-in-law's death, exhausted from living with a husband she lost daily to this mysterious disease that slowly erases a loved one, not only from our lives but from the sufferer's own life, too! Yes, Alzheimer's is a condition worse than death. It slowly kills the affected person while he is still alive, until what remains is a living corpse with a blank mind.

As if connected by telepathy, my writer-friend Ginda Simpson who lives in Umbria, where she paints, writes and runs a lovely Bed and Breakfast, sent me an article she wrote about her father who she lost recently, and who she and her family were losing for years to Alzheimer's.

Reading Ginda's moving and dazzling description made me want to applaud my friend's sensitivity and writing skill in having pinned down brilliantly the nature of this devastating disorder of the human mind. She spoke of Alzheimer's as of a thief. The metaphor was so appropriate and the writing so masterful that I feel I must share parts of this with my readers.

Here she speaks of the advent of the disease in her father:

"His nemesis ….as imperceptible as a shifting shadow … would steal into Dad’s world to snitch a word here, misplace a thought there, or hide a scrap of information in a way that it might be discovered later in some unexpected place. Gleefully, he would toss these life skills around, topsy-turvy, letting them fall where they may, and then he would depart as stealthily as he had come. At times, he would stay away for months on end, wrecking havoc someplace else and leaving Dad, in the meantime, to wonder and to hope that it had been his imagination after all. But the pilfering continued.

A man of superior intelligence, determination and action, Dad threw himself into his work – reading, writing, researching – a continuous outpouring of his expertise in the field of psychopharmacology. None of us knew back then, that the enemy was fast on his heels. For several years, Dad succeeded in hiding his shadowy visitor, but was unable to rid his mind of its presence.

Gradually becoming bored with his juvenile pranks, the petty thief turned professional, breaking in during the daylight hours, leaving windows open and doors ajar. Dad was having a hard time keeping up with his game and we began to suspect that something was wrong. What were the sounds Dad heard as the intruder tampered with the delicate springs of his mind? What thoughts visited him during the night? It is not surprising that Dad became more withdrawn and self-absorbed, as he fought to control both his inner and outer worlds.

Nameless and faceless until now, the trespasser came and went leaving faint tracks each time he paid another visit. Eventually, he left his calling card. His name is Al, short for Alzheimer’s. Mom called to enlist our support in a united front against the enemy. Specialists were consulted and medications administered in a desperate attempt to repel or trap the thief…. Our sentinel watch was in vain.

Dad understood his need to minimise his losses so he fought back with wild cerebral energy…spent hours on end seated at the computer that “lost” his documents repeatedly. He had….medical articles and handwritten notes that he could no longer keep up with or put into any kind of order. Believing he still had deadlines to meet, Dad’s frustration grew and his determination to stay ahead of Al increased proportionately. Even if Dad could have barred his windows, he could not keep the burglar from crashing through the front door at will.

More than once, Al backed up his truck and moved out large chunks of valuables, stripping Dad’s mental vaults of images, vocabulary and garnered wisdom…..Horrified and helpless, we watched, unable to stay the devastation and loss as Dad’s world was repeatedly vandalised. "

After her father declined and was finally hospitalised Ginda writes:

"By my September visit, Dad had ceased to struggle, lacking the strength to fight Al any longer. Echoes and reverberations of his past filled his head, but issued forth in unintelligible mutterings and motions. …Disoriented, Dad wandered aimlessly around the labyrinth of his mind in now empty corridors with no familiar landmarks. From a man who was the ultimate wordsmith, having written countless articles, books and two lexicons, he now had trouble finding the words to express his most basic needs. He would recognise the voice, but not the face of the loved one who was visiting."

My personal experience of Alzheimer was in the context of a beloved father-in-law, a clear-headed lawyer, whose mind became his last court battle, which he lost. Today, two weeks short of his death anniversary, I share a poem I wrote about him and about that Ultimate Thief of our human-ness: not Death, but the Vandal of that most valuable treasure-chest of our lives: our Memories.


As I enter his room, my father-in-law
grunts and rumbles like a once ferocious beast
now caged
and tamed into submission.

I avert my gaze,
look at the old walls and faithful furniture,
that stare coldly back at me,
unforgiving of my discomfiture.

But apart from the silence
of inanimate objects--
tight lipped like hostile nurses--
there is no one really, to witness
this perfunctory, pained visit.
There are no watching, remembering eyes;
only a blindness here
as of too much light
with not enough of shadows
and reflection:
a Present with no Past.

There is in this room
only my own half-hearted presence
and the half-empty absence
of this once remembered
now lying on his blank sheets,
elaborately arranged
into this skeletal sculpture
of himself.

The plaque below should say:
"A long departed man
chained by his doting family,
to the doorpost of their memories"


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