April 17, 2024

We’ve been witnessing a burgeoning obsession in the US lately with the effect ageing has on the human brain. This came to mind again when I was reading about the latest woes of Dianne Feinstein, who may have what’s politely called “cognitive decline”. And of course every time Joe Biden misspeaks, his critics seize on it as a symptom of dementia.

I’m younger than Feinstein and Biden, but I’m also older than, gulp, almost 90% of Americans. As I plow into my 60s, I find myself awash in the boomer preoccupation over whether one has, or will eventually get, dementia. If you are in my demographic and not routinely self-examining for signs of dementia, that probably means you already have it. Otherwise, it’s an introspective compulsion that, once unsealed, will soak into any aspect of everyday life.

Example: I was recently working on a crossword puzzle (and yes, I do have better things to do) when I encountered a clue about the “beatnik Maynard G” on the old sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. As I wrote down the answer (“Krebs”), I searched my mind for the name of the very familiar actor who had played him.

And got nothing. Just a foggy notion that it was somebody with a one-syllable first name, and a two-syllable last name. Maybe. Yikes, what’s wrong with me? This topic is made-to-order for old people!

“I can’t think of who played Maynard G Krebs,” I told my wife.

“Who?”

“You know. Gilligan.”

“Oh. Well, you’ll think of it.”

Her confidence was based on countless instances over the years in which she depended on me to supply worthless factoids that she had not bothered to obtain or retain. As a matter of fact, there was a time when my memory synapses seemed to crackle and spark like an electrical fire as they retrieved certain names and facts that may have eluded others. Father Coughlin! The Washita Massacre! Charlie Root! The Black Hand! Quemoy and Matsu!

But now these answers come much less readily, if at all. The synapses have stopped crackling, supplanted by something more like a low, uneven vibration, which feels like it could sputter and stop at any second. Now I find that when I seek to retrieve a random name or label – and not necessarily an obscure one – the answer at first might avoid me entirely. Often, the only way I can grasp it is by subterfuge: if I wait for a period of time, turn to other matters as if I’ve given up completely, and then some hours or even days later sneak up on the question from behind, I have a better chance of grabbing it. It’s like looking at certain faint stars in the night sky – only by looking slightly to the side, rather than directly, can one detect them.

Maybe this is the beginning of dementia! And please don’t tell me that’s just paranoia. Don’t, because paranoia happens to be one of the symptoms of dementia. Along with confusion, getting lost, repeating questions, memory loss … there are a lot of symptoms; offhand, I can’t remember them all.

Anyone over 50 can be excused for a bit of obsessing about the condition, because it’s constantly in the news, from Feinstein to Bruce Willis to Rosalynn Carter. Of course, the pharmaceutical industry is scrambling like crazed hamsters to treat dementia – there have been two potential treatments approved by the FDA in the last two years, and a third is pending. Alas, reviews have been decidedly lukewarm.

I know that part of my obsession goes back to my dad, who died at 97. He retained his faculties well in his early 90s, but at some point he lost a measure of mental traction. He functioned fine with the help of my mom and he recognized without hesitation his kids and grandkids, but he also started to repeat himself a lot, and if left unsupervised, he might get lost in the corridors of their retirement home. I suppose that I may be destined to follow a similarly erratic path someday.

But today – today I concede nothing. Let’s see: Maynard G Krebs. Gilligan, for God’s sake. I make a mental list of the cast of Gilligan’s Island. Alan Hale Jr, Jim Backus, Tina Louise. I can even retrieve Dawn Wells, no problem. But who played Gilligan!? Some untrustworthy voice inside me says, “Tim Conway!” I chastise and scorn the voice: It’s not Tim Conway. “OK”, the voice says, “but it’s Blank BLANK-blank. Like Tim CON-way.”

Later that day, when I’m not trying to think of it, the faint star is suddenly visible. Bob Denver. Bob DEN-ver.

I seek out my wife. “It’s Bob Denver.”

“Who is?”

“Maynard G Krebs was played by Bob Denver.”

“Never heard of him.”

Undeterred, I savor my feat for the better part of an afternoon, enjoying it while I can. Because just ahead, there inevitably lies yet another struggle over another lost name. One of these days, it might be Bob Denver all over again.

Oh, well. Back to my dad. A year or so before he died, I took him and my mom for a drive one early evening. There was a thin crescent hanging brightly in the sky. “Look at that moon!” my mom said.

My dad studied it almost in awe. Then he said, “I’ve never seen a moon like that before.”

I said nothing. My old man grew up in the 1920s in a homestead in northern Montana. They had no electricity, and nobody within many miles did. Unhindered by light pollution, the sparkling sky he undoubtedly saw on almost every cold clear night would have been spectacular. I’m certain he saw literally hundreds of appearances of a crescent moon.

But now he was taking it in as if for the very first time. This sturdy scion of the Great Plains, who had trained horses, fought as an army paratrooper in the Pacific, worked as a carpenter, with hands tough as rawhide … was now softly unraveling. And as for me: the future had reached through time and space to scruff me for a sober look at what lay directly in front of me and what might await me further on.

That was some 15 years ago. Time contracts slowly, painfully, surely, like the rusty vise at my workbench. But to nurture fear is mostly pointless, and the human spirit, when functioning properly, seeks the bright. So, I keep in mind the wonderment my old man expressed that one night at the crescent moon. Really, how fine, to feel that you’ve witnessed something new and amazing at age 96!

I know: my irrepressible psyche is in self-defense mode, looking for any glimmer in the darkness ahead. Fine. In the meantime, for now, I’ve concluded that the best course of action (besides exercise, eating right, sleeping right, blah-blah-ing right) is to keep an eye on the moon – and to think, on each sighting: I’ve never seen a moon like that before.

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