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April 14, 2011

The Leavings: Reflections on Death and Alzheimer's

Fresh out of college, I worked as a social worker at a gerontological facility. The first time I heard the word, Alzheimer's was during a phone call from a staff member at the National Institutes of Health. She was flying to Texas to follow the care of a patient recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, a disease that in 1974 was thought to be extremely rare. I was to assist with finding care resources for this lovely elderly woman, who lived in a high rise apartment, decorated with antique Chinese furniture. It was difficult to see exactly how the disease in its early stages affected her. She was elegant, poised, and kind. I could not have imagined the difficult end of life that this sneaky disease would bring to this delicate grandmother. Nor could I ever have imagined that Alzheimer's would become a household word in my lifetime and affect more than 18 million people worldwide; that it would bring a kind of death that, as my friend Lamar Hankins describes in his poem, involves so many different kinds of leaving for the patient and the family who suffer the symptoms and the consequences of this assault on the brain, the mind, the body. 

Lamar's father was ill for an extended time, as is so often the case with Alzheimer's. He died on February 20, 2011.  Lamar is a Texas attorney (and a fine one!) with a finely tuned social conscience and a gift for making life better for others.  His poem weaves many influences together, from Picasso and Emily Dickinson, to the post oak trees in Dew, Texas, in the Eastern part of that state. I especially like the way he weaves the natural landscape into the nature of human life.

The Leavings: 
Reflections on Death and Alzheimer's
by Lamar Hankins

When he left, I’m not sure.
We knew that short-term memory leaves first,
that newer experiences don’t register.
Knowing is important, but does not make the leavings easier.

The personality did not leave as quickly as the memory;
Flashes of humor bumped up against what we knew of the disease and who he had been.
Knowing helps to measure the progress of the leavings,
but it doesn’t help us know what to do ... or not to do.

Leavings are everywhere:
They come by stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, cancer
They come by Picasso’s longing fixation late in life
They come by breaking of bones, by loss of
cartilage and muscle and skin.

Once, the leavings were isolated,
singular, and unconnected in a young mind.
Later, the leavings accumulate, leaving an impression
much like the one a body makes in an old mattress,
distorting our  world as they leave dents in our lives and, sometimes, holes.

A very old post oak tree at the gate at Dew was young when he was young.
It now seems dead, but the trunk still stands 25 feet tall—
a remarkable sight– the silver tree with stubby limbs.
Before it started dying, it was 50, 60 feet tall, strong and proud,
but it no longer offers canopy for shade and will soon fall, as will we all.
We take much for granted when we are young:
our bodies, our lovers, our parents, our relatives and friends.
The leavings don’t seem so significant then;
they may be important, even shocking,
but their significance doesn’t penetrate.

As the leavings accumulate, they take their toll.
Sometimes there is a numbing,
focusing on the everyday keeps emotions at a distance,
but eventually emotions catch up with reality,
and we understand better our fate and the fate of all.
In the end, his waking hours made little sense.
Who knows what happened in his dreams?
Emily wrote: it is knowing that this life will never
come again that makes it so sweet.
He knew the bitterness, but also the sweetness, of life.

Copyright Lamar Hankins, All rights reserved.

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