Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Alzheimer's Self: Or, Who Are You Anyway?

This post from the Nyoho Zen blog really struck me. Especially the opening story.

My grandmother — we called her Oma — struggled with Alzheimer’s before passing away a few years ago. One evening after dinner, during her last Christmas visit with our family, we were sitting around the table — Oma, my brother, Tracy, and I. Oma took a cookie from her plate, held it up, and asked, “What is it?” One of us, in the gentle way that people do, said, “Oma, that’s a cookie.” She looked irritated. Again: “What is it?” We all glanced at each other around the table. This was awkward. This time, one of us started to explain how a cookie is made. “Well, there’s flour, and egg, and this one has chocolate chips.” Then this 90-plus-year-old woman, who in her lifetime had probably baked about 80,000 cookies, shot us all a very lucid, fiery look, as if we were all disappointments. “I know how to make them,” she said. She held up the cookie again. “What IS it?”

And so the four of us found ourselves staring in earnest at a cookie in an old, shaking hand, really unsure of the answer. What was she asking us? We all looked hard at that cookie and said, “Wow, Oma, I don’t know.” That was how we left it.

The author goes on to talk about koans, and the ways in which a lot of folks these days like to toss around big phrases and ideas, but seem to lack a sincere desire to help others, or be of service to what I'd call "our mutual awakening." One thing I've noticed for myself is that I don't leave as many comments about dharma online anymore. I'm less inclined to spend a lot of effort on debates, especially ones filled with heady, intellectual big shotting. One discussion I did recently participate in ended up producing some really interesting stuff. It also included a rather stereotypical, huffy exit from an older, and I'm assuming white male, who was tossing his weight around in ways that felt exactly like what Koun (from the Nyoho blog) described on folks being insincere about koan study.

Anyway, back to the story above, Oma's lucidity reminds me of my grandfather, who also had Alzheimer's. There's something almost time shattering about life with Alzheimer's. On a visit to my grandparent's place towards the end of his life, I remember waking early one morning and coming out to see grandpa in his chair. He'd been mostly gone the day before, but as I stepped into the living room that morning, he looked me straight in the eyes and said "Morning, Nathan. How's it going?" I was a bit startled, since he hadn't really remembered who I was the entire week we'd been there. We went on to have what felt like a "normal" conversation. Talking about the birds outside. Food. Something about an old friend of his that lived down the road. Not an hour later, the rest of the family was up, and eating breakfast together. And the "normal" was replaced by the new normal of don't remember anything.

Moments like that made me question the entire narrative I had about the past. And memory. And time. I have had a few similar experiences during meditation, but for some reason, the shifting in the flesh and blood of my grandfather seemed more startling.

I don't know what Oma was like as a person before Alzheimer's, but it sounds like this fierce questioning about the cookie was a surprise for the author and his/her siblings.

Who is this person? What happened to the person I knew? If this is true, then what does it mean to be "a person" in the first place?

We seem to both hold together in certain ways, and also fall apart - at the same time. Sometimes, the falling apart is drastic, other times it's barely noticeable. But the sense of self most of us cling to really isn't what we are. And that's both liberating and scary. Don't you think?


Bob said...

Here’s a story from a night at the Alzheimer’s residential treatment center where I worked part time as an aide, after retiring from my career business career.
I was walking down the hallway one evening on my way to swiping out for the night. “Swiping out” involves going to a special room and carefully sliding a piece of plastic identification through a scanner attached to the side of a wall. The metal box responds with a green light, if I do it right. Many people all across America and even around the world do this every day and night. The machines calculate our net time contributions to our employers, and determine suitable reimbursement for our efforts. It seems we have finally attained to the dead poet Richard Brautigan’s poetic vision of all being watched over by machines, although not necessarily the “machines of loving grace” that he envisioned – more like impersonal . . . well . . . machines.
In any case, a lovely old wheelchair-bound soul accosted me gently before I got to the special room with the swipe machine and asked me where she was. Although I had seen her at the facility a number of times previously, in her mind she had mysteriously just arrived here, not even knowing where “here” actually was, much less her room number. There’s a provocative metaphor there, but I’ll refrain from elaborating on it for now for the sake of brevity and just proceed with the narrative.
I asked her if she wanted to go for a ride to nurse’s station and thereby locate her room. This proposition seemed to appeal to her, so off we went, and she kept her feet raised like a pro, so as not to scrape the ground and lose her slippers as we wheeled down the hall.
When we got to the station, the nurse was off attending to someone else, so I parked the chair alongside some other patrons who were gathered around the nurse’s desk finishing off their Eight O’Clock Snacks, and told her the nurse would soon be back, and she would direct her to the right room.
As I was about to leave, she grabbed me by the arm, looked me in the eyes and asked, “Is it safe?”
Thanks tomy Mate who had recently introduced me to the film “Marathon Man”, I immediately flashed on the Nazi Laurence Olivier asking that same question to Dustin Hoffman, strapped in the dentist chair and tortured for information, and this made me smile out loud. I then quickly assured the Dear that everything was perfect. We both smiled at that. Hey, why not? All is well, no matter what, so why not admit it, even when things don’t necessarily seem that way in the midst of this crazy dream?
Nevertheless, there was still some inquiry that wanted to be done, so she next asked how many people were there at night, and I told her that there were more than a hundred. This impressed her, but she wondered if it was safer to be at home instead. I replied that since there were more people here at the facility than there were at home, that meant she was safer, because there were more people here to help her.
This made sense to her, and she expressed relief. I conveyed to her my most sincere and confident trust that she could relax, upon which she thanked me graciously for my sentiments. We smiled at each other for a while — two vulnerable critters wandering through this realm on another night in infinity, smiling in the midst of the vast unknown. Our smiles exuded the warmth of safety, even in the midst of a life of uncertainty — just because we were there with each other. It was good. When the nurse finally arrived back at her station to help out, we finally said good-bye for the night, both feeling safe, and for no truly sound reason, except that we tell each other it is so, and so it is.

Jeanne Desy said...

Your post made me think of my mother. Her body did not seem affected by her stroke. But she lost the "work ethic" that moved her all her life to cook and keep the house clean and picked up. She'd been pretty robotic about cleaning in particular. Now she just didn't. It was hard to imagine that central piece of personality resided in a patch in the brain. If so, where is the soul or spirit, where is the self?

Nathan said...

Love that story Bob, and this especially -

"We smiled at each other for a while — two vulnerable critters wandering through this realm on another night in infinity, smiling in the midst of the vast unknown. Our smiles exuded the warmth of safety, even in the midst of a life of uncertainty — just because we were there with each other."

So accurate I can feel it now.

Oh, and Brautigan - I read almost everything he wrote several years ago. A wild mind, and perhaps a bit prophetic as well. Seems like a lot of mid-20th century writers were seeing into the future.

Jeanne "It was hard to imagine that central piece of personality resided in a patch in the brain. If so, where is the soul or spirit, where is the self?" Sure is a mystery. Everything seems to lend credibility to Buddha's understanding that we don't have a self the way we think we do. It exists, somehow, but not as our minds construct it.