As a result of spending a couple of weeks in a hospital bed, my father’s physical abilities have diminished markedly. He’s improved after two months at a skilled nursing facility, but getting up from a wheelchair can sometimes be fifteen minutes of hard work for him and three other people. His mental abilities have deteriorated during this time as well, the disease robbing him of words and the last vestiges of sense. He is dependent upon others in a way that he hasn’t been since he was a year old.
There are few things that my dad knows any more, but to a degree he knows of his dependency. The other day, one of the caregivers and I worked for ten minutes to move him from wheelchair to bed. He was tired out from it, but once he got shifted into his final position, he politely thanked us. He’s done that since I was taking care of him last year. My patience as a caregiver would be utterly used up by the time I got him into bed at the end of a furious day of sundowning. My mind would be swarming with the insults and anger and paranoia of the previous six hours—but after I turned out the lights and said goodnight and tried to get an hour to myself, he’d call me back, and then say, sweetly, “Thank you. Thank you.”
Alzheimer’s disease is a haphazard thief. It takes this, it snitches that. If my father’s personality were an encyclopedia, the disease has been ripping out random pages for ten years. But, looking at such a decimated encyclopedia, you could still tell that the section on “Education” was originally much bigger than the section on “Exercise.” My dad no longer speaks with much coherence, but you can still sort of tell what was important to him. My ego would like to believe that my existence as a son was more central to my father’s being than making sure that his laboratory was adequately supplied. However, he hasn’t recognized me in months, and his babble never mentions family. It tends more towards making sure that the jars are labeled and that the columns have been packed without bubbles and that the meeting should adjourn.
So, was the essence of my father “professor of biochemistry”? My father’s child, a scientist raised by a scientist, knows about emergent systems—billions of neurons making factorial numbers of connections, shaped by a unique combination of genes and history produced the personality I called Dad. I know also that malign disease is randomly killing individual cells in his brain, and each death murders a billionth of my Dad’s self. In this view, there is no essence, no center to the soul—just a picture, once sharp and detailed, losing resolution until it becomes a uniform wash.
There’s a belief in many religious traditions that a harsh asceticism can bring the soul closer to the divine. Possessions, adornments, the body, a developed intellect, the ego—the soul is obscured by these thing like a diamond buried in a turd. Orient or Occident, you can find the belief that radical, sometimes violent simplification can bring the soul out of this pollution and let it shine. Over the last years, I have watched Alzheimer’s disease simplify my Dad, purging what a more voluntary ascetic might call pollution, but what I knew as his self. Is this disease distilling my father to the essence?
What is (and was) my father’s essence, his anima, his self, his soul? What is the last thing left, when almost all has been stripped away? I’m left wondering this after a day with my dad. I see all these things: a man robbed of all dignity but still capable of gratitude; a few random crumbling scraps of an encyclopedia; a self fading into a blur of nonbeing, leaving behind just animal functions; the distilled essence of a person. There’s truth and solace and pain in each. If I could, I would choose to believe that when my father’s self or soul has been so violently stripped of its ornaments and adornments, when its intricacies and complexities have been obliterated, that what remains is a simple, heartfelt, open sense of gratitude.
I am my father’s son, so I know this is a half-truth I tell myself to soothe a jangled psyche. It’s a nice half-truth, though, and its company is pleasant in the middle of the night.