No one has asked me this yet, but I’ve been wondering how I would respond to the question, Do you feel cheated?
On the face of things, maybe I should. We live in an era when many people are living into their eighties and beyond. As recently as the 1930s, Americans were expected to die in their mid-sixties. This was a key part of the original plan for Social Security. By making sixty-two the minimum age, policymakers could confidently predict that the average recipient would live for just three more years. These days, life expectancy in America is a month or two short of eighty.
In my extended family, I had a great-grandfather, Frank Christie, who lived almost to 100. He was born in 1876 and died when I was in my early teens. His wife Alma lived deep into her eighties. My maternal grandmother, Evelyn Christie, lived to seventy-nine. My dad, thanks in part to what we would now call the “Mediterranean Diet,” died in 2004, just shy of eighty-seven. My mother, a recipient of good genes descended from Frank and Alma Christie, turned eighty-seven this past March. She spends her time in an assisted-living home, where she continues to paint watercolors, read, and enjoy herself.
Did I assume, pre-diagnosis, that I too would reach my eighties? I didn’t take it for granted, but it seemed probable. A few months earlier, I’d read an article in The Atlantic Monthly titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” (The title was not literally accurate. As the middle-aged writer explained, his intention is that once he reaches seventy-five, he will forgo medical treatment that would extend his life.) I asked myself at that time if I too would be willing make such a vow. I wasn’t sure. I was still confident that I would live to be seventy-five.
Family members and friends have commented on how quickly after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s I conceived the idea of this blog. In my mind, I had no choice. Writing has governed my life, in one way or another, since I started college. It helps me make sense of the world.
But there is another, more important, reason why I feel relatively at peace. All my life, I’ve felt the love of others. I grew up in a home with two steady and fair-minded parents, along with a big brother that I often wrestled with on the living room rug in front of our fireplace, until one of our parents would shout, “Look out for the mantel!” And it wasn’t just my family that gave me love. I grew up in a wonderful city in northwest Washington at a time when kids (boys, at least) were free to roam widely on their own.
As an adult, I have never been short on friends.
Most important, I have a loving and capable wife.
But there is, of course, a very high probability that I will leave my wife a widow. And this is where my calculus becomes more complicated. I am fortunate that my youngest child is thirteen, and my son twenty-one, an adult in every sense.
But there are times when the weight of my diagnosis oppresses me. This is almost always as night, for as Ernest Hemingway pointed out in his painfully beautiful novel The Sun Also Rises, “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.” The notion of leaving behind my loved ones has the power to rupture sleep.
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This is the first installment in what I conceive as a weekly blog. While the text placed just above the image of Mount Baker and the San Juan Islands is designed to give a taste of my thematic concerns, I will also be writing about Alzheimer’s research and my personal struggle with the disease.