by Karen Beaumont
Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman who understood better than most what lies in between.
Thaddeus went to the front desk.
“When is breakfast?”
“Breakfast was served at 7:30.”
“Well, no one told me that.”
“It’s the same every morning.”
“No one told me that.”
“Why don’t you go to the kitchen and ask them to make you something? But, in the future, you’re going to have to remember on your own, or you won’t be able to stay on the floor you're on now.”
Thaddeus knew what that meant, and it wasn’t something easy to contemplate.
He didn’t forget everything, and what he forgot wasn’t predictable. He had read about all of this. His long-term memory was generally reliable but not always. His short-term memory was the same. His mind felt like a used car: sometimes it started, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes it got to the store and back, sometimes it stalled halfway home.
He was terrified and frustrated and angry and, for all practical purposes, facing this by himself – no wife, no children, estranged from his family. This collection of facts was enough to make him terrified and frustrated. This collection of facts had made him angry for most of his life. Another story. And this is the reason why he moved into this Catholic “senior community”: he was becoming more and more aware that he had no safety net, and that age brought a precariousness that he had never known before.
So, he had a safety net: what was the problem? The problem was he wanted to maintain his dignity and independence. The problem was he didn’t want to lose himself. The problem was finding his own way, like he had always done
He needed to get some fresh air and out of a building populated with people with various degrees of decline. It was too easy to look at others and cave into a fate that might not be his fate after all. The day was pleasant, and he headed out for a walk.
There were too many thoughts and feelings – past and present colliding, the future murky, shaky, dark. He had survived in life, essentially, drawing on his own resources. What resources does an old man alone in the world with unreliable cognition have?
Thaddeus had spent the bulk of his professional life as an investigative reporter for public radio. His specialty was ferreting out institutional corruption – private industry, government, non-profit, health care. He could sniff out an inconsistency and follow the trail, discovering remarkable instances of institutions presenting themselves in public as one thing while in reality acting in a very different manner and usually to the detriment of those they professed to serve.
This is what made him reluctant to rely on the safety net of the institution in which he lived: he knew that in any ambiguous situation (in this case an old man who had the very beginnings of cognitive decline but who otherwise was still bright) could prompt the said institution to default on to whatever action would preserve their status quo. For him, that meant being assigned a “status”, losing his freedom, and ceasing to be treated like a man.
This was the sort of situation that would tangle anyone’s mind, and the combination of early cognitive decline and a lifetime of unsorted memories was complicating his thinking and, therefore, his ability to come up with a plan. And he was the one who needed to come up with a plan. He had no advocate except himself.
He walked and thought. Were there tools he honed in his professional life that could aid him at the moment?
Questions had been an important part of the investigative process and tricky business: too focused of a question might lead a reporter to miss surprising and revealing information. Flexibility was the key. He realized it was now, too. He needed questions that were focused in terms of what he needed to meet his goals. Other questions needed to be broad because he was very much in need of the surprising and revealing answers that had been part of his successes as a journalist. He needed some good surprises at the moment to spark a little hope.
When he returned to his apartment, he began to make lists. He listed his symptoms; he listed his current strengths. He listed his goals.
He began to explore questions: how could he preserve his cognition? Were there activities, medications, dietary changes? Were there habits that would buffer the effects of a misstep? Should he see a doctor?
He looked at the questions. The computer and library could arm him with knowledge. If medications were warranted, that would require seeing a doctor who may or may not respect his wishes. It would be safer to have an advocate. Who would be taken seriously? Who would take him seriously?
He decided to call the priest.
The young, earnest priest came to his apartment one afternoon, and Thaddeus, briefly, explained the facts of his life – career, no attachments – and his current situation.
“I need a little time to gather information before I call a doctor. Once I call, I think I will be safest with someone with me. I’ve noticed how they’ve changed towards me as I have aged. This has irritated me in the past, but now the stakes are too high. I need someone there who will hold them accountable for their attitude towards me and my treatment.”
“I would be happy to do that. If I think of some reading that might be of use to you right now, would you be interested?”
“Yes. Thank you for both.”
Thaddeus had not forgotten the skills of inquiry practiced throughout his career, and the computer age added a deft tool. He studied genetic factors, environmental factors, expected rates of decline, medications and their usefulness and side effects. He read about ways to assist memory on one’s own. He even tried calling one organization specializing in these things, but they talked to him like a child and had essentially presented him a picture of defeat.
Then he called the priest and made another appointment to see him.
They met again in his apartment, and Thaddeus laid out what he had learned, habits he was already implementing, and the medication that he wished to ask the doctor about.
The priest nodded. “This is all impressive, sounds good. I am happy to attend the appointment. How will you explain to them that it is me and not a family member?”
“You are assuming they will ask that question.”
“It seems a reasonable question to be prepared for.”
“Fine. If they ask, I’ll tell them that we don’t need to crowd my mind with that army of ghosts. We have more important business to deal with.”
A week and a half before the appointment, the priest called, saying he had a book he’d like to lend Thaddeus, saying that it might be good spiritual preparation for this next chapter of his life, and that he would leave it at the front desk.
Thaddeus picked up the book and went back to his apartment to begin reading. The author had good credentials. The book was slim, so that might be an indicator that it wasn’t overwritten.
The premise seemed to be about the spiritual tools needed to face challenges and life decisions. Fine. The author talked about prayer. Made sense. Then he wrote about abandonment, saying that that was more important than prayer.
Thaddeus read the sentence again and then closed the book.
He went for a walk because he needed to think about how to respond.
When he returned, he called the priest.
Thaddeus handed him the book.
“You read it quickly.”
“I read a few pages and then stopped.”
“Abandonment is not more important than prayer.”
“Sometimes we have to accept situations.”
Thaddeus clamped his mouth shut against the rage that was about to explode out of his mouth to this young man.
“Yes, Father, I am old enough to know that acceptance is, at times a necessary response. And if I hadn’t fought like hell my whole life, I never, ever would have done the investigative reporting that I did, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to face the situation I am in right now. If I “accept” and “surrender” to this, I will quickly slip into oblivion.”
He paused and then looked up at the priest who was clearly at a loss for words.
“So, if you think a book like this is appropriate for me, it seems likely that you don’t know what it takes to keep this old man’s dignity respected when we go see the doctor. I’m not inviting you to go with me to collaborate with the young medical professionals who will write me off before they even look me in the eye. I'm inviting you because the Church preaches the sanctity of human life through natural death. Having me drugged and tied to a chair because I’ve lost my mind isn’t a sanctified existence.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“Did you ever really think about what you were saying? Did you ever consider that there are precious few things in nature that are absolute? Did you ever consider that truth lies in-between the absolutes?”
Thaddeus was angry at his situation, at this man whose thinking didn’t go beyond rote recitation of what he read, and at a Church who should be doing better.
The young priest looked up at him, “No, I confess. I say what I was told. I believe what I say, but I never thought about, if you will, the logistics.”
The day of the appointment, Thaddeus put on his suit jacket, straightened his tie, checked his hair. Then he reviewed for the umpteenth time the notes he had made, practicing what he would say. Then he put the ordered papers inside the carrying case that he used in his professional life and went to the lobby to meet the priest.
Thaddeus, the doctor, and the priest sat together, and Thaddeus began, explaining what memory issues he had, where and when his cognitive processes worked well, the systems he had set in place to help him keep track of things, and the medication that he had researched.
The doctor turned to the priest, “He’s not doing that badly, is he.”
Thaddeus tapped on the desk. “Doctor, you can direct your comments about me to me, and I don’t want to be referred to in the third person. This is my situation. My priest is here as a support.”
“Oh, well, yes. You have done a lot of work to prepare for this appointment.”
“This is my future, and my skills as an investigative reporter have been useful.”
The doctor administered the standard test to determining cognitive decline. The number validated what Thaddeus had described as mild cognitive decline. He wrote a prescription for the medication that Thaddeus had been most drawn to in his research and asked that they make an appointment in three months' time.
As they were about to leave, the doctor said, “I’ve never seen a case like this.”
Thaddeus, still irritated by the doctor’s comments directed towards the priest said, “Were you even looking past your computer screen?”
On the way back, the priest asked, “Are you satisfied with the appointment?”
“Enough. I should thank you first for going with me.”
“I think I should thank you, and the doctor should, too.”
“Because your determination shakes up our attitudes about aging and, if I may say so, cognitive changes.”
“What, that there’s something between being a genius and a blubbering, octogenarian baby?”
“That’s one way of putting it. The thing you said when you handed me back that book, something about the truth being in between, that’s what resonates with me right now.”
“In between,” Thaddeus said, “is where life is.”