Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Last Word

All would live long, but none would be old.
-Benjamin Franklin

I have known him for more than thirty years. Back then, he was a clever, accomplished 60-year-old. He was self-aware, well-versed, well-read, and well-travelled. He was rigorously honest, selfless in his actions, and generous with his time. He was engaged with friends and colleagues around the world. His self-deprecating humor was well known by his family and friends. At the time, he was about to finish a career which had combined his gifts as a beloved teacher, a respected leader, and a deeply spiritual intellect.

Just one thing annoyed me, though: It seemed that whenever a conversation had reached a stopping point and I had taken a couple of steps toward the door, he would invariably call out one more question. It happened all the time. With each question, I would turn back, finish the conversation again, and retreat out the door. Sometimes, this happened two or three times before he would let me go.

Over the years, I got used to this propensity of his. Sometimes, I found ways to distract him as I snuck out. (“Look! A huge bird! Right behind you!”) I am certain that, too many times, I rudely just mumbled an answer or pretended that I had missed the final question. I did not like being rude. Sometimes, though, it was the easiest way out.

Over the past year, however, Alzheimer’s disease has tightened its grip on him. He is pleasant and attentive. He can still play some card games with help. He answers questions appropriately when they allow an automatic response. His eyes still sparkle. He smiles when he gets a hug.

But - sadly - he no longer calls anyone back to ask just one more question.

Who would have thought that the loss of his spontaneity would be manifest by the loss of his ability to call someone back into conversation? Who would have thought that he would still be able to process and answer simple questions but no longer be able to create his own?

I think about what he has lost whenever we end one of our simple conversations and he sits quietly, watching me walk away.

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