I never met Ralph Hergert, but I did attend his funeral. In his two professions, as a minister and a social worker, he was widely known in Somerville and Cambridge. His wife, Leslie F. Hergert, has written a quirky and insightful memoir of her late husband. The quirkiness is in the book’s structure. Rather than employing a conventional narrative, Hergert chose the primer mode, titled Alzheimer’s Through the Alphabet: One Journey of Ups and Downs. I would advise readers to read Hergert’s introduction, as it provides some important context. Significantly, Hergert states, “This narrative provides little, if any, advice.” In other words, readers are largely left to their own interpretations.
Some of the juxtapositions are inspired. On the left page, for the letter A, the topic is “Annoying Period.” As Hergert put it, “most of us don’t admit when talking about Alzheimer’s: Our loved ones with Alzheimer’s do lots of annoying things,” like repeating questions and, in more extreme situations, putting the keys in the freezer. On the opposite page, the title is “Becoming a Better Person.” This full passage is difficult to summarize, in part because Hergert is such an accomplished prose stylist. Here’s an extended example, under the header, “Mixed Messages.”
“As should be clear by now,” Hergert wrote, “the messages I have to convey are very mixed. I am never quite sure whether to say how terrible this disease is or how manageable it is. Is it a devastating disease that takes a painful toll on loved ones? Is it something you can deal with if you change your expectations and ways of doing things? ... Do I want legislators and businesspeople and the public to understand the difficulties of this expensive, long-lasting disease and its changing support needs? Or do I want to provide encouragement to people with the disease and their caregivers? Is it manipulative to change messages with audiences? I worry about that, but both messages are true and need to be heard.”
One of my favorite entries in this book is “Hope.” This is not the hope of traditional Christianity. To me, it sounds like the “faith” of the twentieth-century, embodied in existentialism. Hergert writes: “I live without hope.” Rejecting the notion of hope (along with two strange metaphors from Emily Dickinson, “Hope is a strange invention,” and more strangely, “Hope is the thing with feathers”), Hergert then moves to one of her key points: “I have found that living without hope frees me to live in the present and experience the moments—whether sad or happy or funny or difficult—as they come.”
The letter G hosted two near-antonyms: gratitude and grief. I chose to focus on grief. Hergert went into the etymology of the word, distinguishing grief from other synonyms. She commented, “Early on, I felt sad from time to time but was less aware of the ongoing grief. Now it seems to have moved in as a constant presence, a feeling behind my eyes, a weight that tires me, a cloud or shadow over the brightest of days.” May I suggest that this is a kind of dark poetry?
Under the header “Incontinence,” Hergert writes, “Somehow, body fluids never bothered me.” She makes an exception for snot, which did gross her out when her daughter was little. But, “when people in our support group started sharing stories of their husbands pooping on the floor or peeing into an open suitcase, I said that would be the signal that Ralph needed to go to a nursing home. But I had forgotten that excrement didn’t bother me except as a problem and an inconvenience.”
Under J (for “Joy”) is a charming vignette. At that time, Ralph and Leslie were living in Chicago. It was winter. “The alley was a minefield of dog poop. I thought it was disgusting and was just about to complain about it when Ralph said, ‘You know what’s great about winter? All the dog poop is frozen.’”
And under “Losses” is what Hergert termed “the Ossie Davis moment.” (Davis was an African-American actor and civil rights pioneer.) The gist of the matter was that Ralph and Leslie heard on the news one morning that Davis was dead, and discussed him and his death for several minutes. “Then Ralph went downstairs to get the newspaper. When he returned, he said, ‘Hey! Ossie Davis died.’”
The first time I read this passage, I focused on the humor. It wasn’t until a day or two later that I grasped the pathos of the situation: Even in 2005, roughly a decade before Ralph’s death, his short-term memory was severely impaired.It was many years later when Ralph got lost, in June 2013. As Leslie put it, “Ralph was a walker. He loved to walk around the city. It was something he could do as his disease progressed, and it was something friends could do with him.” Walking was very important to him. He was not a “wanderer,” a person who goes AWOL from an institution; he left the house unannounced while Leslie was in the apartment downstairs helping her mother. Massachusetts has a “Silver Alert” law, which allows police to look for a lost person with dementia immediately, instead of waiting 48 hours before searching for a missing adult. There was a beer festival in Davis Square that night, and Leslie thought it seemed plausible that Ralph was having a beer at the festival. But Ralph was not there. The next day was even more intense. Things ended safely, after 28 hours of searching. And Massachusetts’ Silver Alert system had shown its worth.