Monday, August 10, 2020

On Futility, Loving Someone With Dementia, and Why Not Everything Has to Have Meaning

My mom, second from right. If we are to believe current research on dementia, dementia may have already been attacking her brain then.
My mom, second from right. Research on dementia suggests it was already attacking her brain when this photo was taken, decades before her symptoms appeared. 

One of the last videos I have of my mother speaking features her lamenting the lies of online dating. She's 62 in the video, but still looks like a runway model: tall, with high cheekbones and perfect blonde ringlets. She's a retired marriage and family therapist, a musician, and smarter than everyone she meets. Unlike most women of her generation, she does not attempt to hide that fact.

"I don't know if they think they're going to grow before they arrive to our date," she sighs. "Maybe they just think they're going to grow on me? Like I'm supposed to get excited about a male tumor?" She points to our waiter, draws him over to us, and proceeds to interrogate him about why heterosexual men are so disappointing. "I'm not drunk," she reassures him. "This is natural. Disappointment with men is my natural state."

Four years later, at 66, she could no longer speak.

I watch this video on repeat, searching for signs of what was to come. There's now evidence that dementia lurks in our bodies, waiting in our cells, for 20 years or longer before it stages its attack. 

I see no signs, aside from her obvious humanity. That's warning enough. Time eventually robs all of us humans of everything we have. Sometimes it's in one catastrophic incident. More frequently it's in the slow erosion of aging, lost loved ones, and illness. We cannot predict when or how we'll lose our lives, our health, or our memories. It's terrifying. We have constructed elaborate rituals and cultural lies to avoid this reality.

Dementia forces us to face the futility of existence, and the fact that it will eventually end--probably in suffering and tragedy. There are no fairytales or lessons or triumphs of the human spirit in the cold story of dementia. There is beauty at looking at things the way they are. There's meaning there, even if we can't wrap things up into neat little packages.