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Six million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's, and like many of them, Joe Thorndike's one great desire was to remain in his own house. To honor his wish, his son John left his own home and moved into his father's upstairs bedroom on Cape Cod. For a year, in a house filled with file cabinets, photos, and letters, John explored his father's mind, his parents' divorce, and his mother's secrets. The Last of His Mind is the bittersweet account of a son's final year with his father, and a candid portrait of an implacable disease.
“The first few pages of The Last of His Mind are dynamite, in their quiet way. They open up a world that, if you've known it and lived in it, conks you on the head, bashes your memory, brings it all back in a rush… This memoir is far too elegantly written to ever state it directly, but the reader is made aware of the high honor involved: The author honors his father in the most profound way and is blessed, in turn, by participating in the most taxing event in his father’s life.”
John Thorndike grew up in New England, graduated from Harvard, took an MA from Columbia, then lit out for Latin America. He spent two years in the Peace Corps in El Salvador, then married Clarisa Rubio and moved to a backcountry farm in Chile, living beyond the reach of cars, telephones and electricity. After several more years in Chile and Central America, he returned to the U.S. with his son Janir and settled in Athens, Ohio. For ten years Thorndike’s day job was farming. Then it was construction. In 1984 he published his first novel, Anna Delaney’s Child, followed three years later by a second, The Potato Baron. His third book was a memoir, Another Way Home, about raising Janir after his mother was overtaken by schizophrenia.
The Last of His Mind by John Thorndike
Published by Swallow Press. Available from local bookstores, Amazon, Barnes &Noble, Google Play and Ibooks, or order from Swallow Press
Paperback 978-0-8040-1236-2 Retail price: $18.95
Contact the author at johnthorndike.com
Synopsis for The Last of his Mind
Five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, and one of them is Joe Thorndike. Once managing editor of Life and a founder of American Heritage and Horizon magazines, he has begun to lose his nouns. First to go are his proper nouns, including the names of people he has known for sixty years. Then his common nouns begin to escape him, words like chimney, swan and couch.
Like many old people, he wants to stay in his own house. After visiting a friend in a nursing home he tells his son John, Don’t ever put me in a place like that. To keep him at home, the author moves in with him on Cape Cod, even as Joe’s mind comes apart. He stops reading and writing. Soon he can’t tell time or make a phone call. He’s convinced that the governor of Massachusetts has come to visit and is in the refrigerator. Only recently, Joe Thorndike was still quoting from Plato and Pliny the Elder—but now he emerges from the bathroom with his underwear pulled up over his pants. Eventually he cannot tie his shoe, or sometimes tell day from night. He forgets how to turn on the shower, how to brush his teeth, how to eat. He forgets that he has a toilet and uses the floor instead.
In spite of his troubles, father and son grow closer than they have been since John was a boy. The Last of His Mind is the bittersweet account of a son's final year with his father, and a candid portrait of an implacable disease.
Author Interview for The Last of His Mind
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 his pockets 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 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.
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.