05 June 2010

:Still Alice:

In the hopes of creating tighter social bonds, I've recently joined a book club. I've yet to make it to a meeting; there's only been one since I've joined, and I had to cancel due to the stress after my first day at a new job. Despite this seeming lack of dedication, I can say that I've not only kept up with, but thoroughly enjoyed, the reading thus far, all of which would have never made it on to my plate were it not for my involvement with this book club.

I'm ahead on the reading at present. This month's meeting is still two weeks away, and, with my usual lack of self-control when it comes to books, I'm already about half-way through July's, having just started this morning. (In my defense, it's a 300 page book.) It's called Still Alice, and is the tale of an independent, intellectual woman of fifty who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. It is written from Alice's perspective as she (forgive the Wonderland phrase) falls further down that mental rabbit hole: forgetting things she's just learned; forgetting how to get home; being diagnosed and having to tell her three children that yes, they too may have the disease. Watching her husband's fear of the disease and the strain it is putting on his life. It was this last point that forced me to put the book down.

My grandfather recently passed away, and, toward the end, he had a number of difficulties. The worst of this, for his family, was the onset of dementia. Paired with a large dose of paranoia, his forgetting of where he was and who we were was annoying at best, painful and frightening at worst. I hate that I'll never be able to think of him again without remembering that he accused me, in his last days, of having killed my mother (his daughter) in a plot to get his money, and that he hoped I'd go to the electric chair for my crimes.

Reading Still Alice gives me a glimpse of what that time must have been like for my grandfather: how the fright of not knowing made him lash out at us while latching on to anything that explained his surroundings, even if that meant doubting whether this girl who looked like his granddaughter really was his family. In truth, we were all lucky - my grandfather was 92 before his dementia became a problem rather than just another symptom of old age, and it only was in his last few months of life that he lashed out at my family and the nurses of his rest home. And yet, being provided with this in-the-head glimpse of the fall makes even a short time like that all the more frightening and horrible. My emotional pain pales to nothing in comparison to what must have been his constant fear and panic.

Like a first-year medical student who, after memorizing diagnosis after diagnosis, can't help but diagnose himself with some strange and awful disease, I can't help but feel scared for my own future. How can one love others, have a family, take constant steps forward in building a life when something like Alzheimer's, terminal cancer, or any other of a number of awful diseases could come along to punish loved ones with financial and emotional burdens? And yet we do it every day, and have done it for centuries. I suppose the human condition is one of a terminal nature - we live knowing we will die. But that knowledge doesn't seem to make my newfound fear any easier to swallow.