Thursday, August 26, 2010

Alzheimer’s is an unforgiving scourge

Herb was in a bit of a bind. At 75, he was slowly but conspicuously losing the wit and
incisiveness that had been keystones of his stunning personality.

Short and lean, Herb managed a presence, particularly during my family’s occasional
festive gatherings. A few years before Alzheimer’s crept into his life, Herb had
demonstrated his command of oratory and memory when he recited the “Cremation of
Sam McGee”, that deliciously multi-syllabic rendering written by Robert W. Service.

Herb rocked back and forth, his hands clasped in front of him as he effortlessly brought
the magical poem to life. His head listed dramatically as he spoke, as his eyes seemed
to drift off into a different place — where words danced in a dervish of whirling colours.

Just these few years later, Herb found himself in a labyrinth of dead-ends and

“I’ve been putting notes everywhere,” he explains. But he need notes to tell him where
his notes are. ‘See note on fridge.’ ‘Call Linda.’ ‘Take out garbage.’ ‘Master list beside

The sad dissolution came rapidly for Herb. His plaintive protestations proved incapable
of slowing the decline. His memory and all that goes with it was on a downhill slide and,
like the proverbial snowball, gaining a full head of steam as it tumbled.

Herb’s loss became slowly evident then accelerated after his wife Wilma’s death
Christmas day 1987. He was inconsolable after Wilma died. He lost interest, even his
famous interest in current events, particularly the machinations of global politics.

Herb was a shoe salesman by trade. By night, he devoured literature. He and Wilma
lived in a small apartment just off Portage Avenue in Winnipeg. He built a summer home
in Winnipeg Beach, a resort town an hour north of Manitoba’s capital. The summer
home was his love, sewn by his hand. Even though its angles were off by a country mile, it was Herb’s handiwork.

As Herb entered his final year, his daughter surreptitiously obtained power of attorney to
govern his financial affairs. Herb had been using his credit cards to buy and re-buy tools
he already owned, nails he didn’t need, compost for the garden that had already
received its full annual complement of the soil enricher.

He had been trying to recapture his independence but his financial indulgence would
have bankrupted him had his daughter not acted. Even so, it seemed callous to take
away his right to decide how he would spend his money.

Herb was ragged with rage for a time. That passed as he forgot the incident entirely. He
would forget that he smoked and drank, both of which were pastimes he had pursued with

The inevitable came as he drifted into the moment — no recollection of the past, no
future ahead in anticipation. Locked in moments that emerged out of nothing.
Herb died in a hospital, likely confused or indifferent. Those who cared for him in his
dying weeks likely knew nothing of his character, his life. That is sad enough.

The greater sadness is that Herb, in the end, didn’t know who he was either.


  1. Good to read about Herb. Great last line J!

  2. An eloquent description of decline. Clear. Concise. Painful. But written with love and respect.

    Thanks/ merci