The Last of His Mind
A Year in the Shadow of Alzheimer's
John Thorndike
Joe Thorndike was one of the early editors of the immensely successful Life magazine. He went on to found American Heritage and Horizon magazines. He wrote and edited scores of books and articles during his long life.

Then, in 2005, at age ninety, his mind began to go. His son John offered to move in and live with him. His brothers offered to pay John $1,000 a week, plus expenses. It was probably a bargain.

This is the story of Joe's last year of life, under, as the title says, "the Shadow of Alzheimer's." We get to watch, in detail, the unraveling, the several stages of what used to be called senile dementia. As Thorndike reminds us, "Half of everyone over eighty-five has Alzheimer's, and as the average of the population rises, so will the prevalence of the disease." We are not only reading about it: one day, it may be us out there wandering about, wondering what the hell has gone wrong.

We've all heard the horror stories: old people falling out of bed, cursing those who are only trying to help them, forgetting the names of those who should be closest to them, forgetting how, even, to dress themselves. At one point Joe puts his underpants on over his pants, gets stuck in the bathroom, wonders who the strange guy is, the one who is cooking him supper.

This was once an erudite man, one who used to love Roman history, a man who presided over Life's "History of Mankind" series; quoted Ovid, Thucydides, Jefferson, Thoreau. His last book --- a study of the Atlantic coast --- was published when he was eighty years old.

But Joe is --- or was --- a man from that generation who rarely used the word "love;" scarcely ever touched or hugged; just didn't want to talk about feelings. John beleaguers him nonstop to know everything possible about his mother. He even visits, not once but twice, one of mum's old boyfriends, a doctor in Miami.

He seems at times to be a lawyer doing discovery. Or maybe he should have been a cop. He doesn't want to leave the old man alone, keeps going at him about his wives, his love life. Poor old Joe. We find ourselves thinking that at the tail-end of his life the duffer should just be left alone ... yet here's this guy who will not stop cross-examining him about what he calls his "doomed family."

Finally, the old man breaks. He says that he wants "to go home" ... even though they are in his home.

    Do something with me. Please do something with me. I've got to get out of here. Please, it's too much. Let me get out of here, let me get out of here, let me get through here. Do something with me. Take me out of here. Help me get out of here.

§     §     §

The details are all here. His father's favorite ice cream, his way of standing up blankly (and sitting back down); reading the New Yorker for an hour (upside down, it turns out); the long list of his medications: Prozac, Aricept, Coumadin, Cartia; the way Joe breathes, eats, and looks. We are spared no detail: the withered shanks, the old man naked in the bathroom, pooping on the floor. At times the details come to seem almost vengeful, father getting his comeuppance for being too cool to his son so long ago.

Yet at the end he shines. How? Once Joe breathes his last, dies in his bed, John goes out for a walk there on the Cape Cod shore. He returns to the house. "Chilled after my walk, I take off my shoes, climb back in bed with my father, and pull his pine-tree-embroidered sheet up to our chins. His body is warmer than mine, and I feel the heat coming off his chest, covered only by his old plaid shirt. I lie on my back beside him in the quiet room, getting used to the stillness. To the way it will be, now that our long walk together has ended."

    Over the years we have had our struggles, but through this painful last stretch, as he fought the loss of memory, language, and reason, I've watched him do the best he could. His whole life, it's now clear to me, he has done the same. He did the best he could with my mother, with me and my brothers, and with his second wife Margery and his great and good friend Jane. I've watched this, I've seen it all before --- but now, lying shoulder to shoulder with him on his narrow bed, the certainty of it seeps into my body.

It is forgiveness, after all, no? 238 pages of railing at the old bastard, and then, the moment he's gone, John comes to:

    Slowly, even as he cools, I warm up under the sheet. I sink back, I close my eyes in the silent house.

--- Richard Saturday
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH