Friday, April 27, 2007

Dignity in Life

"He lived three houses down from mine. He had a dog with arthritic knees so I had seen him regularly for acupuncture and other remedies. Every day, regardless of weather, I would see Terry walking. On my way to work in the morning, I saw him walking. If I came home for lunch, I saw him walking. At the end of the day heading home for dinner I saw him walking. If I got called out to a late night emergency, I saw him walking.

Three years ago Terry was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disorder, something similar to Alzheimers. He took a medical retirement from the mine where he had worked for 18 years. With no job, I guess he had nothing to do but walk all day. I assume the deterioration of his mind left him restless.

Whenever I saw him I waved. I remember a scene in the tv show Seinfeld; Elaine was talking about someone she had had a conversation with. For a while they'd stop to chat whenever they saw each other on the street. Then they'd smile and nod. Then just the nod. Then no nod and ultimately just a vague sense of animosity when he passed by. That scene came to mind whenever I saw Terry walking so I always waved. And he always waved back. He knew the sound of my car. If he was walking away from me, he would turn to wave as he heard my car coming.

The dog eventually died of old age so I didn't see Terry anymore. But I kept waving. Then a few weeks ago I saw him on the sidewalk, urinating in plain sight. He smiled sheepishly but with both hands busy he didn't wave.

A few days ago I saw him walking as I was on my way to work. Then l didn't see him when I came home for lunch. When I headed back to work there was an ambulance parked without flashing lights in front of Terry's house. Then I saw a patrol car driving fast up our street.

Sometime after his morning walk Terry had gone home and shot himself. He left a wife and a three-year-old son. She was at work and the boy was in daycare.

Terry was 55."

This tribute was posted by a friend who lives in Wyoming. The first thing that came to mind when I read it was "there but for the grace of God..." Some people responded or joked around that this was depressing. I thanked Kevin for a thoughtful essay on the life of his neighbor and friend. I believe that an event such as death must move you deeply in order to motivate you to write down your thoughts. It's easy to write about birthdays and weddings but death is different. Each of us must come to grips with death in our personal and private way. Sometimes the doubts and feelings are so frightful that we dare not voice them, or even think about them beyond a New York minute - not even to our closest family and friends, let alone to an internet audience of running virtual friends - most of whom you have not met.

As I read the story, Terry had substance and slowly came to life. I envisioned a man slowly losing his grip on life, on hope, and the dignity he had once taken for granted.

How painful were his last days when he struggled with the knowledge that he was losing his "face" to the world. That as his mind degenerated, he would lose what little dignity he had left. It's like slowly watching your arm disintegrate before you, knowing there is nothing you can do, and one day, you will wake up and it will be gone. Except in this case, he would wake up and not know who he was, where he was, and quite possibly what he was.

How many of us could live with that? Or be willing to live like that?

Rest in Peace, Terry.
And my hopes and prayers to your family and those who loved you.

And thank you, Kevin, for taking the time to write it down.

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Blogger Paul said...

That kind of walking is a symptom of Alzheimer's. It's sad, and 55 is way too young for that kind of degeneration. Kevin's story is a step in the right direction for educating the rest of us about such folks as Terry.

7:33 AM  

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