Interview with John Thorndike
The Last of His Mind: A Year in The Shadow of Alzheimer’s
Your first two books were novels, followed by a memoir about raising your son. Now, another memoir. Have you left fiction behind?
I hope not! Given that I’m working on a novel right now. Of course I’m always working on a novel, there’s always some story in the back of my mind. But life interrupts a novel. I stop to plant my garden, or visit my grandson, or build a house—or six houses, as I’ve done here in Ohio over the last ten years. Or I go to Cape Cod to stay with my father because he’s so confused, and after a month of watching his language and memory disappear, it comes to me that I have got to write this down. I start to keep a journal—which instantly feels more important than any novel—and the journal evolves into The Last of His Mind.
Tell us about your father.
He was a great father who couldn’t give me everything. By that I mean he was devoted and generous with his time, but also a restrained New Englander who kept his feelings at a distance. He married my mother in 1940, and they were together for twenty-three years. He loved the English language and wrote well by the time he was in high school He edited and wrote for the Harvard Crimson, went to work for Henry Luce at Time, and at the close of World War II became Life’s third managing editor. In the fifties, with a couple of friends from Life, he started two elegant and well-respected magazines, American Heritage and Horizon. He also wrote several books, the last of them when he was eighty. Even at ninety he was still going strong.
What were the first signs that he was having trouble?
He’d been living on his own and doing fine, still cooking and bathing and taking care of himself. On the phone, since he never stayed on too long, he could cover up what was happening to his memory. But when I went to see him for Christmas I found he couldn’t keep the days of the week straight. He had trouble remembering what had happened the day before, or even that morning. To keep track of things he wrote notes to himself on three-by-five cards. He wrote, “Dentist appointment,” or, “I’ve eaten breakfast,” or, “Today is Saturday.” No date, just hundreds of these cards stuffed into the pockets of his shirts and spilling onto his dining room table. Reading them was like a glimpse into chaos. That’s when I started thinking that someone had to take care of him.
Why you? Why not one of your brothers?
Sometimes there’s no balance to these things. My youngest brother and his wife had a two-year-old girl. I’d raised a young boy on my own, and I remembered how consumed I’d been when he was that age. My other brother, the one in Vermont, also had a family, and a busy law practice. The truth is, I was probably the one most temperamentally inclined. I could do it, and I wanted to.
Why not a nursing home?
After looking after me my whole life, my father asked me for one thing. I’d taken him to visit a friend in a nursing home, it was pretty gruesome, and as we drove away Dad slumped against the door of the car. He looked exhausted. We drove for a while in silence, then he sat up and said, “Don’t ever put me in a place like that.” Just one sentence, and I knew I wasn’t going to do that to him.
How much did you know about Alzheimer’s when you started taking care of him?
Almost nothing. I knew Ronald Reagan had had it, I knew it stripped people of their memories. But I had no emotional sense of dementia, of how devastating it can be for everyone. Day after day there was some surprise with my father. He’d come out of his bathroom in the morning with his underwear pulled up over his pants. Or he was convinced that people had snuck into the house and stolen things, objects he couldn’t name. He thought that Mitt Romney, the state governor, had come to visit and now we had him in the refrigerator. I started reading books about Alzheimer’s, people’s stories, and that calmed me down a little. I saw that it wasn’t just my father turning strange, it was a disease playing out in his hippocampus and neocortex. What was happening to him had happened to millions, and his brain was actually coming apart in an entirely predictable way. The stories were sometimes hard to read, but still they soothed me.
Do you worry about getting Alzheimer’s yourself?
I should. It’s on my mother’s side as well as my father’s, and there’s a genetic link, so the odds are against me. But on that basis plenty of people are headed for trouble. Once you reach eighty-five your chance of having the disease is one in two. I don’t worry about it any more than I worry about death, which seems a long way off. A typical illusion, I suppose. Anyway, I’m not taking any herbal supplements or doing crossword puzzles to keep my mind limber. I write, instead, which is puzzle enough.
In a book about your father, how did you come to write so much about your mother?
Because I’d always been closer to my mother. She let me in, she would talk and my father wouldn’t. She talked to me about their marriage—at least after it was over—and even about the man she fell in love with. After she died I tracked the guy down and asked him what he knew of my parents’ marriage—because I was never going to hear anything from my dad. In the book I quote that childhood conundrum, If your house were burning down and you could only rescue one parent, who would it be? It would always have been my mother, because we had so much more of an emotional connection. The irony is that years later, because of his Alzheimer’s, my father was the one I grew close to. I spent a year with him, morning to night almost every day. I hadn’t lived like that with either of my parents since I was a kid. I loved my dad, but it was a revelation, after spending so much time with him, to realize how much I liked him. And how much of him is in me. Now that he’s dead, I think about him with something closer to the obsession I’ve always had for my mother, who died when I was thirty.
You write a great deal in the book about coercion, about pressing your father to do things.
I thought about that often when my son was growing up. I always wondered how much I should let him choose, and how much I should decide for him. And now it was the same with my dad. Here’s a guy who’s been active his whole life, and now all he wants to do is sit in a chair. A psychologist urged me to get him out of the house, to take him to the senior center. But my father didn’t want to go to the senior center, or sometimes not even to the mailbox. And I had to ask myself why a patient with dementia didn’t have the right to give up, to turn away from other people and do nothing. Who could say that my father didn’t know what was best for him? It was a question I faced every day, from my first cheerful greeting: “Good morning, Dad, you ready to get up?” Often he wasn’t ready, but I got him up anyway. And was that right? Aren’t there times when Alzheimer’s patients just need to give up, and stop rising to the occasion? We put the same kind of pressure on them that we put on kids, and I was never sure if that was right.
How old was he when he died?
Ninety-two. I was lucky in that, because his dementia didn’t really start until he turned ninety. My heart goes out to the caregivers of people who come down with the disease when they’re younger, when they still have years to live. That’s a burden that keeps on growing.
Were you prepared for your father’s death?
Is that possible? No matter what you do? I knew it was coming, and I’d arranged things as well as I could. Only a week earlier I’d told the nightsitters I wouldn’t need them anymore—because I wanted to be alone with my dad, I didn’t want anyone else there. A Hospice nurse had come and gone during the day, and he lay unmoving on his bed. I kept going in and out of his room, feeling his hands and feet and listening to him breathe. It was nine at night and I’d just checked on him. I didn’t hear anything special, but something made me go back and take another look. His breathing had slowed down, he was getting less oxygen, and as I held my hand to his heart I could feel it speed up, faster and faster, banging away in his chest—until it stopped. From one instant to the next his heart went still, and that was death. I climbed into bed with him and put my arms around him—but I don’t think you can be prepared for something like that, to feel a heart stop beating under your hand. I’ve been over that scene a hundred times, writing it, reading it, and still it’s a mystery.
And now? You’re working on the next novel?
Yes, it’s a story about my mother and someone she never met, Camilo Cienfuegos. He’s an historical figure, one of the four early leaders of the Cuban Revolution, and I’ve given them the kind of powerful romance I think they both needed.
No Alzheimer’s in this book?
No, they’re all young people! They might fall to it, years down the line. That’s how I see dementia now, as lying in wait, never that far away. But not my mother. Not in this novel.