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Excerpt From ‘The Last of His Mind: A Year in the Shadow of Alzheimer’s’

Communication - When the light fades, humor and manners shine through the darkness.

My father is not the island he used to be. People are touching him all the time, and he seems to accept it. [Health care worker] Harriet and I massage his shoulders, his arms and legs. I work on his feet to maintain his circulation, especially his heels where the risk of bedsores is high. Touch flows to him now as it flows to an infant, and all the aides have their hands on him. I rub his scalp or work some lotion into his shins as he grunts and makes small noises I can’t interpret, but which don’t sound like objections.

A range of emotions plays across his face. When I rub him he grimaces, occasionally smiles, sometimes gives a look of confusion. When I roll him to his left I see his fear of falling. He doesn’t talk about his feelings any more than he used to, but they’re more visible now. And this, I realize, isn’t new: all year he’s been losing the ability to hide his emotions.

Don’t explain, don’t complain. That was Cole Porter’s credo, and could have been my father’s. Yet now I remember how distraught he looked after dreaming that his father had died. I think of his crazed expressions when I found him lying between the toilet and the wall, and his great frustration when he tried to carry on a conversation and could not, and the defeat that drowned his face—his whole body—after his first evaluation by the neuropsychologist.

I’ve seen his troubles, but also the joy on his face when [his longtime companion] Jane’s daughter Susie called him on the phone, and when her other daughter, Catherine, came to visit. I think of his elation, his pure glee at playing hide and seek with his granddaughter Eliza. Though his memory and language have given way, he’s been showing me plenty of how he feels. His face is mobile and his emotions roll over it, he can’t hold them back. I’ve been too literal, waiting for sentences that are now beyond him. I give up on them. I don’t need them. I rub his body and watch his face, and I talk to him.

I tell him stories. I slip the headset over his ear when [his other sons] Al or young Joe calls. When I tell him it’s my birthday, he brightens. “Is it?” He speaks less and less, but he can still make a joke. After a single bite of butternut squash last night he turned his mouth away. “Okay,” I said, “we could dispense with this and go straight to the coffee almond fudge.”

“I’ve heard of that,” he said.

Humor and good manners: it’s amazing how long they hold up.

From the book The Last of His Mind: A Year in the Shadow of Alzheimer’s by John Thorndike. Reprinted with the permission of Ohio University/Swallow Press, Athens, Ohio.

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