I am not afraid of dying, but rather of becoming old. No. Let me rephrase. I am not afraid of looking old, but I am afraid of my mind aging.
There is something endearing to me about getting wrinkly and creaky with someone that you love, about having time wash over you and the years spread across your face and bodies, about sharing moments and memories that create a lifetime. There is an interesting study about why some old lovers look alike, which I found fascinating.
But I fear losing my cognitive abilities and my memories, being psychologically alone and emotionally trapped within the prison of my own mind. Whereas now I revel in my own private, daily ponderings as I cruise through life and often struggle vainly to recall as I rush to put pen to paper in order to preserve them, I simultaneously fear the time when I might be trapped alone with my own thoughts and no way to express them.
Tonight we shared Thanksgiving dinner with my parents' neighbors (and surrogate grandparents) Jack and Sarah. My family has been watching Sarah grow increasingly ill over the years, and it has taken a small toll on each of us, especially since Alzheimer's runs on both sides of the gene pool. While physically Sarah is in fine shape, her mind has been deteriorating slowly for the better part of five years. And it is so hard to watch her struggle in her own self-induced confusion and disorientation, whimpering like a child one moment and snapping back to a seemingly normal adult-like state the next.
It was an odd evening as we shuffled between instances of not remembering who I was or whether Sarah could hold her orange juice to reteaching her how to toast a glass. In an effort to keep Sarah's mind working, Jack probed her with sporadic questions.
"And who am I?" he asked, posing the question as a fond joke rather than an interrogation method to make sure she was still with us.
Sarah looked up from her stuffing and green bean casserole and announced proudly, "You're my man!"
Minutes later she was breathing heavily and appeared paranoid, tugging on the drawstrings of her pants and on the verge of tears. Later when Jack joked with her about a personal matter, she leaned in affectionately, squinted her eyes at him and said, "You be good now!"
I kept wondering what thoughts get locked inside and how scared she must feel sometimes. But my heart also reaches out to Jack, who has assumed his caretaker role out of a sense of duty, perhaps unconditional love, and even a degree of fear. Fear of being lonely maybe? Fear of not being able to afford the high-priced assisted living that she already needs?
And that thought scares me, too. That one day I will watch someone I love deteriorate rather than have them watch me. In some ways, you are then locked in your own mental prison as the one person who shares a lifetime of memories and thoughts can no longer make sense of the world around them. The wrinkles I can deal with. When Jack looks at Sarah or when Sarah is really seeing him, you can tell that they each see what the other thinks they still look like. And that's what I want - someone who will see what I think I still look like.
Between her fits of anxiety, Sarah would graze the table cloth with her fingers or trace the designs of her placemat and would repeatedly comment on its look and texture.
"Beautiful," she would say slowly in a low, sophisticated tone before returning to a high-pitched, childlike whimper. I guess despite Alzheimer's grip on her mind, she still searches for the beauty of this life.
That is what I chose to be thankful for this year.