The Ruins of His Mind

Dad & Alzheimer’s

by J.S. Porter

He seems so lost, my sister says. Where has his mind gone, my mother asks. I was slow to read the signs. Slow to pick up on the significance of lost keys, missing wallets, misplaced bills, even the fumbling for words. I misread the illness. The forgetfulness, the dwelling in the past, the ebbing confidence—these I put down to the encroachment of old age, the natural occurrence of a man’s summer diminishing and his winter years coming on.

At eighty-two, Dad seems to be living in a foreign country now, where the language is difficult to speak, where the signs often seem indecipherable. He searches for words, gropes for syntax. He looks distant, the facial muscles seem tighter, more pained, a look of worry and weariness shadows his face, the world seems too large, too threatening—for him who was always so strong in the world, so sure of his step.

Strong is the word I’ve always associated with him. Strong in mind, body and will. He’s the fighter. The man who can skip rope, punch the heavy bag, shadow-box. The man who doesn’t quit when he’s cut. The man who keeps trying? Determined. He goes back to school at age thirty-eight to study, among other things, Hebrew and Greek. Clear-headed. His working-class roots in Belfast’s small-minded Shankill Road, one of the city’s festering sores, never blinded him to the worth of a stranger. Dependable. If he says he’s going to do something, he does it.

He tells me that he’s going to take me to Europe and he does. He tells me that he’s going to take me to Africa and he does. He says we’re going to see Ali box, Pele play football, Peter Schnell run, Stanley Moss drive, Belafonte sing, William Hutt act and we do.

Now the word to describe him is weak, helpless. Something has hit him hard, and he’s not quite sure what. He chooses not to use the word Alzheimer’s. He follows my mother around the house like an obedient dog. He panics when she goes out. He’s unsure of himself socially, though there are still moments of graciousness and gratitude. There are even moments of clarity. The fleeting moments of clarity are more surprising, even more miraculous, than the frequent moments of confusion and withdrawal.

He tends to be quiet, withdrawn. He’s past frustration and agitation now, and seems to be settling into acceptance. Or, is it hopelessness?

I think these thoughts while I’m staying in a Catholic hostel in New York called Leo House, just a few blocks down from the Chelsea Hotel where Arthur Miller wrote Death of A Salesman and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen wrote love songs. It’s my fifth visit to the city. I’m here to interview the niece of the dead poet Robert Lax, a poet of spare lines who leaves more out than he puts in. I’m walking along West 23rd Street with my father on my mind. This is his city. The city he gave me when I was four.

When we immigrated to Canada so that dad could enter the United Church ministry, instead of flying directly from Belfast to Toronto, we flew first to New York. That’s what the Irish did then, and maybe even now. They wanted to see New York, the new centre of western civilization, the city of music, movies, theatre and heavyweight championship fights. We saw the sights then, but I didn’t remember them, so Dad took me back to New York when I was nine. The Empire State. The Statue of Liberty. Broadway. Times Square. Central Park. Radio City. The United Nations. Staten Island. Madison Square Gardens where the boxing was. He gave me the city a second time.

I hail a cab and ask for Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street. I start at the Jewish Museum, then go to the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan, the Whitney, then walk over to West 53rd Street for the MOMA. I see Vermeers, Klees, Gauguins. Jasper Johns’ maps, Howard Hodgkin’s bays, Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers, Milton Avery’s White Rooster. I see everything with my father in my mind. Why isn’t he here? Why can’t I show him these pictures? I see his face, I hear his voice, I feel his presence.

I look again at the Abstract Expressionists: Rothko, Gottlieb, Klein, Pollock. Mark Rothko especially. He has been my favourite painter for some time now. Panels of tremulous colours shimmering at the edges. Sacred spaces where the mind can find repose. But I see them differently this time. I’m struck by the paintings’ emptiness, their blankness?This is Dad’s mind I’m looking at, I say to myself. It’s empty, it’s blank. He’s not there yet but he’s going there. His mind is a Rothko painting, or soon will be —no objects, just a few bands of colour, getting darker.

Then I look at the Adolph Gottliebs. The sunbursts, the pictographs. There is a lot of empty space in the sunburst paintings, but there are a few objects too. In one of the paintings there’s a red sun and a black sun in the corner, a sweep of space and black calligraphy at the bottom. This is a picture of Dad’s mind. A lot of space, a few objects he’s trying to hang onto, a general darkening of the canvass.

The next day back at Leo House, I still have Dad on my mind. I leaf through a National Post I brought with me. An English painter, a sufferer from Alzheimer’s, has painted his self-portrait six times. The portraits show varying degrees of distortion as if a small neutron bomb has gone off inside the subject’s head leaving the architecture of the face but destroying the life-spark, the animating force that gives personality and vigour to the face.

The self-portraits move from a clearly defined face, though slightly askew, with distinct eyes, nose, ears and mouth, to a spotted face with dark blotches. None of the facial features is distinct or recognizable in this final portrait. Between the first and last portraits, the intermediary faces show increasing distortion of features, more and more darkening, less and less distinctiveness. The pictures look frightening, horrific, true. I can see aspects of Dad’s face in their faces. The paintings display mind cannibalism; they make visible the invisible worm; they bear witness to a mind-eating disease in its various stages of destruction.

Having had my fill of pictures from the galleries and from the newspaper, I take a cab to 41 West 47th Street, to the Gotham Book Mart, to fill my mind with words. I pick up Last & Lost Poems by Delmore Schwartz. He was a poet of New York and a frequent visitor to the Gotham. I pick the book up for its title. Last and Lost. Dad is in his last days, his lost days.

I know a little of Schwartz. I know that his mind slipped. Became unhinged, grouted from the groove. I read these lines from “Overture” in The Studies of Narcissus:

The mind is a city like London,
Smoky and populous: it is a capital
     Like Rome, ruined and eternal,
Marked by the monuments which no one
Now remembers. For the mind, like Rome, contains
Catacombs, aqueducts, amphitheatres, palaces,
Churches and equestrian statues, fallen, broken or soiled.
The mind possesses and is possessed by all the ruins
Of every haunted, hunted generation’s celebration?

I see my father in every Schwartzian image, hear his footfall in every Schwartzian line. He took me to London as a boy and walked with me there; he took me to Rome and walked with me there. His mind was populous. Full of ideas and feelings and sensations. Full of dreams. Always dreams. His mind is in ruins now, marked by monuments he cannot remember; his mind is in catacombs now; his mind is fallen, broken and soiled. There is no celebration.

The Greeks come in handy. Wherever you go, they seem to be ahead of you, there first. Chaos. Is it the opposite of cosmos? Cosmos is order and chaos is “the confused unorganized state of primordial matter before the creation of distinct and orderly forms.” Has Dad’s mind reverted to primordial matter? His mind is in chaos.

Memory in English derives from the Middle English and Middle French meaning mindful, but further back is the Greek word mermera meaning trouble. Memory is trouble. Dad has a troubled memory; his memory is in trouble.

A few months ago my wife and I watched a film adaptation of Marcel Proust’s novels on memory and time, his Remembrance of Things Past. The film opens with a close-up of water flowing and cascading. The Greeks make an appearance again. Lethe. The River Lethe, the river of oblivion, the waters of forgetfulness. Where everything is washed away, including memory. Where nothing remains.

I keep thinking of emblems of Dad’s mind. What metaphors, what images show it clearest? Abstract Expressionist paintings? Schwartz’s poems? A Christmas light that flashes on and off? No, a light that isn’t properly connected, so it flickers, so it’s off more than it’s on. Or is his mind a river without embankment, source or destination? Thoughts and pictures tumbling together, running on without mesh to trap or nets to keep. An unmeshed mind. An unnetted mind. Just flow, ever more chaotic and murkier.

When I think of water running and spilling uncontrollably, I think of Dad’s will to order. His will to oppose the drift into debilitation. He keeps asking the doctor if he can jog. If only he keeps his body fit, the fighter in him thinks, maybe his mind will follow. He spends hours at his writing desk, moving papers, filing documents, re-arranging books. If he gets the desk right, gets it in order, maybe he can get his mind right. When he travels and arrives in a hotel or a family member’s house, he spends hours unpacking and re-packing his suitcase, putting shirts and pants in closets, and then putting them back in the suitcase. He fights to maintain order in the chaos.

I see him sitting on a lawn chair facing my wife’s watergarden. He’s beaming. What is it, Dad? I ask. I remember the dog’s name, he says. I remember his name. His name is Molson. He says this as a revelation even though he has known Molson for the last six years.

Another poem springs to mind. It’s Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”. Two of the stanzas go like this:

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
     of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
     The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
     Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
     Places, and names, and where it was you meant
     To travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I don’t think Bishop wrote these lines about Alzheimer’s, but it’s amazing how accurate a characterization of the disease they afford.

Dad is losing keys, names, places: farther and faster. When he and I and my son came back from Ireland last year, on the way home in the airplane he asked me to write out the places we had been to: Coleraine, Port Stewart, the Giant’s Causeway, the Antrim Coast, Portavogie, Downpatrick, Fermanagh, Donegal. These were all places he once knew like the back of his hand.

The question I ask myself now is not what will be lost—because I know everything will be—but what will be the last to go. My mother’s face, I’d venture to guess. The Lord’s Prayer. Though I’m not so sure about this one anymore. In Church last Sunday, communion confused him. The ancient Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision.” Perhaps. Memory of his brother Tom and their early days together in Belfast. His dog Paddy. I think my sister and I will go soon. The grandchildren’s names and even memories associated with them will go. They will become strangers to him, except maybe the one granddaughter, my daughter, Rachel. Dad has always had a special place in his consciousness for the beauty of the female face, and his granddaughter’s face in particular. Music.

Poetry has gone. The pleasure he used to take in it. The reading of Wordsworth and Shakespeare, as everyday to him as the reading of the Bible. The intrigue of stone to someone who collected it everywhere he went. Gone. The pleasure of flowers, of gardens. Gone. The pleasure of a young child’s face and hand. Going. The pleasure of animals. Watching birds or squirrels or the occasional butterfly. Gone. “Summer’s ascendancy and sovereignty,” the “yellow-headed, gold-hammered, sunflower-lanterned/Summer afternoon?” Gone. It’s winter now.

Yes, I suspect my mother will be the last to go in his mind. Her fierce loyalty. Her fierce love. They will be the last to go in his “darkling summer, ominnous dusk, rumorous rain.”

Published in The Hamilton Spectator, September 28, 2001.
All poetry quotations are from the poems of Delmore Schwartz unless credited otherwise.

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