Alfred Johnson is not a professional writer. But this former Oregon State Trooper knows how to tell a tale in his book Unmerciful Fog: My Journey with Alzheimer's Disease Dementia. And both of us were commercial fishermen in the Northwest. In 1975, my dad granted me a full share of the salmon catch, in the waters of north Puget Sound. And in the late 1980s, I made good money fishing in Southeast Alaska. For Johnson, it was the coast of Oregon.
There are two subjects that are precious to Johnson. The first is hunting. But since his diagnosis, Johnson has turned a new leaf. Now he enjoys nurturing kittens. Dementia can do strange things to the human brain. I happen to be a churchgoer. But to Johnson, religion is central to his identity. This is when Johnson’s narrative comes fully alive in a big way. And sometimes people with dementia are not reliable narrators. Just weeks after my diagnosis, I was summoned to jury duty. At that time, my mind was still nimble. Those days are long gone. I asked my wife, Paula, if I could serve on the jury, if chosen. Paula quickly shot down the idea. No one with any form of dementia can serve on a jury. The reason, of course, is that jury people have to have to be competent.
The background of this section appears during a hunting
outing. It appeared that Johnson is hunting alone. Or is he? He can hear the highway, parallel to him. Chapter II is quite impressive. The chapter header is The Train Has Left the Station. This is when Johnson’s talents come to the fore.
Johnson had been a big-game hunter for more than three decades. But his tastes have changed. The larger transformation was a deeply religious one. My favorite scene in the book involves Johnson getting lost in the woods. Long before I was diagnosed, I had a very poor short-term memory, and now the idea of being in the woods alone terrifies me. The venue was eastern Oregon, with his friend, Dusty. “During the trip ... the thick dark layer of clouds had descended and obscured the peaks of the mountainous landscape. I scanned the forest for wildlife while admiring the beautiful forest.”
But things did not remain bucolic. According to Johnson, after stalking a deer, he realized he was lost. “After wandering aimlessly through the forest a while, I arrive at a hilltop that provided a good landmark vantage point,” but he then realizes he “had walked in a circle.” He then feels a sensation many people living with dementia will recognize, “My anxiety level rises as darkness begins to engulf me, and I continue the desperate hike toward the sound of the elusive highway. I finally realize that the sound is not highway noise, but rather, the wind blowing through the trees.” Johnson stops and prays at that moment, and gains “a sense of inner strength” that helps him to keep walking on. With renewed hope, he “ponder[s] which direction will most likely lead me to the highway,” and just then he hears an old truck approaching.
Johnson is alluding to Christian doctrine. “When I arrive at the passenger door, the man in pleasant tone, states, ‘My son, walk down the road, the highway is 3 miles, you can’t miss it.’” Johnson interprets the man’s arrival as a sign that “Jesus Christ had answered my prayers to encounter an angel.”I do have one criticism: Subtle readers should be able to figure out things on their own. But I salute my fellow writer. It is quite an act for a novice writer. And, my sense is that Johnson wants readers, as almost all writers do. But Johnson, I suspect, doesn’t aim for a large audience. His audience is God.