January 23, 2001

I woke up this morning feeling ancient.
Stretched so thin, I'm probably transparent,
so much without substance that I fear if I were to go outside,
I would blow away or dissolve in the rain."

My father died when I was 18, seven years ago, when I was a freshman in college. That's when the dementia had destroyed enough of his brain to destroy the man I knew as my father. Dad was a laid-back sort of guy, with a sweet smile and an easy sense of humor. He loved music and technology and boats, was a championship marksman, enjoyed exotic foods and made holiday pies. He built a playhouse for my sister and myself, a shelter for the dog, racks for the firewood. We went hiking and backpacking together and took a family vacation across America.

The doctors can't say when the disease arrived. But by the time I was halfway through that first year of college, it had stolen my dad and left a silent, sullen man in his place. He spent more and more time playing computer card solitaire games, and he took no interest in what I might be doing now that I wasn't living at home. Our phone conversations were filled with empty silences.

The images from last month's brain scans show many empty places, fingers of blackness where his personality used to be and a gaping hole were the words he used to know were stored. The dementia has consumed the tissue of this once above-average brain, leaving vacant holes filled with fluid behind an expressionless face. Leaving my family with the knowledge that whatever advances are made in Alzheimer's and dementia research, they will come too late for my dad to ever know his grandchildren. Leaving me with the fear that the failure in his brain is genetic and that dementia will start destroying me.

Yesterday we visited the neurologist. He was quietly sympathetic as he showed us the MRI images and discussed where we might be in the progress of the disease. He seemed almost apologetic that there is nothing to be done. It may be three years yet before we start to see physical manifestations of his shrinking brain: loss of motor control, incontinence, difficulty swallowing. In the meantime, my father will become more clueless, more inarticulate, and more difficult to be around. But it won't be over until his saliva gets in his lungs and he develops pneumonia or until the instructions to keep his heart beating disappear. The end of this chapter could still be 10 years away.

I stopped myself before I asked the neurologist if there was any way we could speed up the disease. Instead I watched Mom's hands. At 52, her hands are starting to look like her father's, who is 79. She is aging before her time because although my dad is dead, we can't bury my father.

I am angry at the dementia, but I can't scream at it, I can't reason with it, and I can't ignore it. It's just there, self-satisfied and taking up the entire living room like some monster-cat on steroids, impervious to temper tantrums and contentedly shedding fur to be tracked through the rest of the house. I hate it for killing Dad, for aging Mom, for having an immediate impact on the lives and bodies of people it doesn't inhabit. I hate it for moving so slowly. I hate how much of my life will be lost by the time it's done and how much my family has already lost. I hate that I want to postpone any children I might have until after the funeral, since what's left of my father will never understand and since I would rather my children grow up with stories of how their grandfather was instead of memories of how he is now.

I am angry, but there is nothing for me to yell at that would make any difference.

January 05, 2001

"Did you make any New Year's resolutions? Or are you going to do what I'm doing:
Using some of the resolutions I have just lying around but which are basically brand new.

Well, here we are, folks. 2001. We can all stop debating when the Second Millennium begins, or if the start of the Second Millennium means the end of the world. For all purposes, the millennium is well under way by now, and as far as I can tell, the world hasn't ended yet. In fact, it almost seems to be intent on proving its continued existence. The neighboring back yard has a cherry tree flowering wildly and our own plum tree has put on some rather extensive new growth. Having not actually spent a winter in San Francisco before, I can't say if the mild sunny weather is unseasonable or not. Is it wrong for the cherry tree to be blooming already? Who am I to argue with a tree who's been here longer than me?

I stopped inches short of resolving not to make resolutions for this year. It seems a bit strange to make some grand statement, "In this new year, I will..." when all the things I would have resolved to do have been things I've been working on in the last couple months. I would have had a head start on everyone. Hardly fair. But then most people probably made the same resolutions which get made every year: to quit smoking, to get more exercise, to spend more time with the kids. I just want to write more regularly.

Actually, that's a bit of an understatement. I want to do so much more than "just write." We celebrated New Year's part deux last night with some friends from out of town. Between mimosas and apologizing to me for what ever offensive things he might have done in my presence in the last couple years, one gentleman asked me what I was doing with myself in this city. After he'd told me how much he loved temporary work, ("Shows you how many idiots there are out there. You've got brains and talent; everyone must just love you. Because everyone else is an idiot. And you get to test out companies and find out most of them are full of idiots, too.") I explained that I am enjoying it because temporary employment gives me the chance to work on my other projects. I'm writing more now than I have in years. I've got these random thoughts and our travelogue which I am currently working on. I'm also drawing Celtic knot work, playing in Photoshop, dabbling in photography, designing and sewing a quilt, and experimenting in soup.

"I'm pretending to be an artist," I told him.

I've never admitted that aloud to anyone before, including myself. The notion has been batting around in the back of my head for some time now, slowly and quietly growing in secret. Me as an artist. It's a strange idea. But it is a strangely compelling one, and I am taking another look at it before tossing it out with the imminent spring cleaning. Something about it has caught my attention, and I find myself wondering if I keep up with the make-believe if I might not find some truth here. So, this year, in 2001, I resolve to keep pretending.