My Wife’s Alzheimer’s, The Notebook, and My Humanity

In a December post, I revealed that my beloved wife of more than 50 years is struggling with Alzheimer’s.  Inevitably, knowing that Alzheimer’s often extracts a high cost from caregivers, some will ask how I’m doing.  They receive my usual, “Just fine,” or even, “Very good.”  Still others, noting that I’m behaving and conversing in my typically upbeat fashion, ask how I’m able to manage that.  Often, I spit out a German line, “Ich kann nicht anders,” and then quickly translate it, “I can do nothing else.”Actually, I know some of the other options in spades, not least because I sat through a popular movie, The Notebook, a few nights ago.The Notebook is a shameless tear-jerker, built upon overweening romantic sentiment.  It contains one realistic row in which the young man educates the girl on the nature of human relationships—their inevitable conflicts, disagreements, love and making-up, but it goes downhill from there.The last scene shows the young man and his wife as two old people, the wife dying of Alzheimer’s and the husband of heart failure, found by the hospital nurse, entwined in each other’s arms in death.  Certainly, as one of my wife’s friends puts it, “Alzheimer’s is the shits.”  And this final scene, which leaves the teary-eyed viewer to conclude that the best resolution for true love is shared disease and death, is classic, tear-jerking “chick flick.”  My response is an unmistakable expletive:  Bullshit!  I do not intend to give up on life because of Alzheimer’s, and I’m quite certain that that strong German partner that I’ve lived with for more than half a century would suggest such a notion is, well. . . obscene.  I view The Notebooks’ ending as utterly de-humanizing, death-giving and pagan. Though I’m christian (with a small c), my thinking is more judeo-christian than my university background of rhetoric, psych, sociology or anthropology might lead you to believe.  Indeed, I believe that if you really want to understand what it means to be human, read the Old Testament.The Old Testament is preoccupied with David.  He is, as my good friend, Walt Brueggemann has written, a paradigm of what it means to be human, and ancient Israel understood him that way, just as do I.  He may well be as one writer has characterized him, “a bloodthirsty oversexed bandit,” or as another puts it, “a man of faith with a quality of elegance which is often unnoticed.”  However you read him, he is fascinating, bewildering, deeply attractive, counter-culture, even embarrassing.  But what most intrigues me about David are his grand gestures of freedom. He is the central truth of authentic faith.Most of us know the stories of David and Goliath, David and Bathsheba and even David and Uriah, whom David had murdered to avoid the embarrassment of his illicit affair.  But few know the next highly imaginative story.After the affair, a son is born of David and Bathsheba, but the narrative says David will be cursed for his affair, and the child will die. The child takes ill, David implores God to spare the child, fasts and lies on the ground with him for seven days, but the child dies.  Each day the servants beg David to get up from the ground, but he refuses.  When the child dies, the servants fear telling David, but he sees them whispering to each other and understands what has happened.  At that point, David rises, bathes, worships, asks for food to be brought and eats.  He does not mourn, does not sit Shiva for a single day, much less the seven, gets up and goes back to life.  The servants are appalled by his rejection of ritual and mourning and they say to him, “What is this thing that you have done?  (Even better: “What the hell are you doing?”) For the sake of the living child you fasted and wept, and when the child was dead, you arose and ate food?”   David’s response completely breaks tradition.  It is counter-culture.  “While the child was still alive I fasted and wept, for I thought.  ‘Who knows, the Lord may favor me and the child will live.’  And now that he is dead, why should I fast?  Can I bring him back again?  I am going to him and he will not come back to me.”No elegies.  No ceremony.  No memorial service.  He just goes back to the business of life.  As Brueggemann writes, David goes back to his world of anguish, ambiguity, ambition and ambivalence.I read this not as history at all, but as highly imaginative story, as a tale told to disclose truth.   The earlier narratives about David the King are fundamentally political propaganda.  These latter stories are about the very human man, who is never “cleaned up,” in the sense that he could even be considered respectable or innocent.  Uniquely, the stories show the interior of the man.I do not intend overstate my life or anyone else’s, but David’s last pronouncements create the world I choose to inhabit.  I will not be squeezed or debilitated by the sap-filled pen of a writer whose work is as bland and sentimental as a greeting card.  As I slowly lose my wife, I do not intend to lose my own life.  Soon after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Patrick Moynihan, still a member of the White House administration, had the right words after that event: “We shall laugh again, but we shall never be young again.”  That’s how it is with me.“So, Dan,” my friends say.  “You seem to be doing rather well in spite of your great loss.”“Yes, and I damn well intend to.  Ich kann nicht anders.” And then, like David, I rise, eat and go back to my life and work.
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