The old man is in his 80s now.
He’s not doing so well.
Always taciturn except when drunk (and, often, even then), it wasn’t so easy to see his mind slipping away. He was never a fast man – his speech, his movements, everything about him was tightly under control (except, once again, when drunk, and, often, even then). When he slowed it down just a little more, we all attributed it to age.
In the past few years, though, he’s taken to falling. He will collapse on the way out of the shower and just lay on the floor naked for most of the day, not sure how he got there and not sure what to do, until someone stops by and finds him.
Diagnosis was not easy because he wasn’t forthcoming with his doctors. “It’s none of their goddamn business,” he would snarl. The doctors thought perhaps he was suffering from a series of mini-strokes.
There is now an official diagnosis: alcoholic dementia. The difference between alcoholic dementia and regular dementia is that one is brought on by alcohol abuse, and, if caught early, can be arrested by abstinence. It’s too late for that now, though. The amount he drinks will only affect the rate of decline, but it won’t stop it, and anyhow it’s not likely that he will stop drinking.
Alcoholic dementia is made more difficult to diagnose since at least some of the symptoms of impaired thinking and functioning are also caused by plain-ol’-plain drunkeness.
He’s a hard guy to feel for. The first time I really felt for the guy was when his wife – my mother – was dying. She was down in a hospital outside of Tijuana, where they were doing some sort of experimental treatment that basically just preys on the refusal of some people to accept that they are dying.
I watched the old man’s hair go white in the space of just a few weeks.
My mother’s funeral was an understated affair. She insisted that no-one be there but her husband, her three children, and Zelda the dog. Her cremated remains were in a large ziplock bag. We all walked across the street from the house that she loved, waded into the cold Pacific ocean on a rocky Vancouver Island beach, swatting away bees. Zelda, her dog, was with us. We each took turns sprinkling a handful of her ashes into the water, and then the old man dumped out the rest of the bag. We sipped wine from paper cups and tried not to betray any emotion. We then walked back home and the old man grilled up some steaks. We ate in silence.
The next time I really felt for the old man was when I saw him at my sister’s wedding. I was struck by how quiet and gentle he’d become. Perhaps a lot of that was confusion. I’m not sure.
A year or so later, his girlfriend of nearly 16 years broke up with him. None of us really ever understood their relationship, but they’d been inseparable for over a decade. He’d already had a few of these stroke-like episodes and he really had withdrawn into himself. The breakup seemed cruel. He sold his condo and moved into an assisted living. It broke my heart just a little.
The old man always stressed independence. He really didn’t need anyone or anything, except, maybe, the companionship of a good dog. He was a prairie boy, in love with vast flat treeless expanses of nothing. He yearned for an unobstructed view of the horizon. He didn’t really like for there to be anything in between him and the edge of the world.
His physical health has not been that great for as long as I can remember. Back problems could perhaps have been remedied with some exercises, but he refused to do any of them. His belly grew – a true beer belly – a huge round mass on an otherwise small-ish man – and this didn’t help much. He didn’t participate in any sports or hobbies or anything that would involve either physical exertion and/or other people…with the notable exception of hunting and fishing.
His brain was always sharp…unless, of course, he was drunk. He was a scientist. He had no people skills whatsoever, and his rise up the corporate ladder was almost entirely due to his competence and smarts.
And now, what little is left of all of that is rapidly going.