Sunday, November 1st, 2009
Halloween in Athens, Ohio. It’s famous in these parts, a street party with some 25,000 revelers, lots of costumes, some drinking, and endless amusing interchanges. I went last night, dressed in a tuxedo I’d bought years ago for $15, with a Billionaires for Wealthcare group, carrying signs that said “If We Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It,” “Let Them Eat Advil,” and “Death To The Uninsured.”
Not everyone got it, and we often had to pass the word: “Satire. It’s satire.”
This was not the kind of party my restrained father would have sought out—but I thought of him as my friends and I stood at the center of town, Court and Washington Streets, where the Christians set up camp each year, several with large wooden crosses. They preach through little bullhorns and espouse their message, sometimes of peace and love, sometimes of the harsh judgment that awaits the wicked. One large sign admonished FORNICATORS, MURDERERS, ADULTERERS, LIARS, SODOMITES and the DAUGHTERS OF BELIAL, among other sinners, that hell awaited them. And not fifteen feet away, a couple of young bucks wearing nothing but long-tailed shirts and thong underwear cavorted about, pulling up their shirts and offering their protuberant backsides for the crowd’s pleasure—mainly that of the passing young women, several of whom slapped them with clear gusto.
All this made me think about my dad?
It’s because the young can go crazy so easily, be outrageous, pull all kinds of stunts we may think of as humorous and full of life. (Well, that’s how I saw it, and I think my father would have watched both the Christians and the cavorters with some amusement.) But when the elderly—in particular those with dementia—act a third as goofy, people quickly get upset.
Of course it’s not the same. The college student is going to wake up the next morning, perhaps hungover but with her wits intact. My father, as his mind fell away from him, woke up to a state that oppressed him. He hated losing his memory, hated being confused, hated realizing that he’d said or done something that made no sense. The more aware of this he was, the unhappier he was about it. And when he was unaware, I think the sober reactions of those around him—no matter how lighthearted we tried to appear—fed his own sense of disaster.
I have some hope for the medical fight against Alzheimer’s. We haven’t come far, but thousands of researchers are hard at work on ways to slow, and perhaps even cure the disease. My greater hope, however, is in how much more attention the world now pays to dementia. When I was young it was a subject as hidden and untalked-about as cancer, menopause, teenaged sexuality and death. The more we treat it now as a common fact of life, as something that could touch any one of us, the more relaxed we’ll feel about it—and the less oppressive it will be for those who suffer from it.