John Thorndike | The Last of His Mind |

Smacked by A Pair of Stories

I’m healthy. I feel reasonably spry, and am about to head off on a canoe trip with an old friend, Deerfield Academy class of 1960, down a river in Nebraska. (We made the same trip last year and didn’t see another soul on the river for five days.)


But just last week I attended my fiftieth Deerfield Academy reunion, and was smacked by a pair of stories.

The first was the death of Tom Sieminski. I hadn’t seen Tom for fifty years, but none of us had forgotten his beauty and great good humor. In the fall he wrote in his report: “Right now I’m dealing with pancreatic cancer”—and well before the reunion he was dead. He joins eighteen other members of the class who have died, with 125 of us still kicking.

The second story was the distant look and shuffling gait of Doug N, a guy I had only known tangentially at Deerfield. Doug could now only speak in a whisper, and he had trouble completing almost any sentence, any thought. I was immediately drawn to him: to his struggle, and to his courage at coming to the reunion. He had a friend, perhaps an old lover—I heard different stories—a woman ten years his junior who had come with him, who gave him his medications, who looked for him when he got lost, who made the whole visit possible. “Doug has Parkinson’s,” she told me simply.

Talking with him was like talking with my father in the middle stages of his dementia. Doug struggled to put his ideas together. He often looked lost. He’s just my age, of course, which made it a shock to see him having such a hard time with language. Day by day, at home in New York, he may do better than at a crowded reunion with lots of noise and dozens of old acquaintances. But what I saw, or imagined, was someone who had things to say and stories to tell, but who could not get them out. I put my ear close to his mouth, trying to catch as much as I could (Parkinson’s patients sometimes lack the muscle control needed for loud speech), but then his words would give out altogether, and he could not explain what he was trying to say.

I’m drawn to dementia, I’m drawn to struggle, I’m drawn to loss. One hears plenty of successful stories at the 50th reunion of an eastern boarding school—but it’s the harder stories I want to know about. And with Parkinson’s, a lot is played out right on the surface.

But of course, I’m still so healthy.

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