Tuesday, January 24, 2012

If I Should Lose My Mind

My paternal grandfather, my dad and me after a long day's work. (1992)
Both of my grandfathers died of the same disease. And it wasn’t cancer.

They had good cholesterol and strong, healthy hearts. They were not diabetic, obese or hypertensive. These were rugged, hard-working blue-collar man’s men, with thick callouses on their hands and elbows. They drove tractors, dump trucks and buses their entire adult lives—yet they did not die in “accidental deaths” (although it’s somewhat of a miracle that neither of them did).

No, none of these things took them. Instead, these words marked the beginning of their end: “You have dementia.”

Their diagnoses came about 6 years apart, during my teenage years. My maternal grandpa’s decline began in 1986. He died in 1992 at age 79. Then 6 years passed, and my paternal grandpa (pictured above with my dad and me) began his plunge in 1998. He died in 2003 at age 76.

In these painful years between diagnosis and death, dementia all but liquefied both of their brains before our very eyes. It progressively ravaged their memories, leaving them able-bodied but unable to think clearly, if at all. And since the brain is the center of all bodily functions, it eventually ravaged those, too, rendering these respected men almost vegetative by the time God finally and mercifully reached down snatched them home. All we could do was shake our heads and ask, “Why, God?”

My speculation about their shared disease deepens even today, as I look back on their lives. Both of them lived within 10 minutes of each other their entire life. They even worked together for a time. My paternal grandfather owned his own construction business, which he inherited from his father. My maternal grandfather drove a school bus for 16 years, then worked for the state road maintenance crew for the rest of his working years. Between those jobs, he put food on the table by working for my paternal grandpa building homes.

I can’t help wondering if something struck them simultaneously during those few years they worked together in the 1960s—brushing on the same lead paint, breathing the same asbestos fibers, bulldozing the same dirt—that set this eerily similar scourge in motion decades before it drew its crushing blow to both of them.

I wonder if it was environmental, or if I carry the same genetic predisposition with me. Sometimes I’m optimistic, and sometimes it’s more of a morbid fatalistic feeling that I, too, am on this unstoppable dive toward dementia.

It is foolish to turn a deaf ear to heredity. Dementia is the strongest common denominator in my family lineage, especially among the men. Like anyone, I often wonder how the Lord will finally take me, if an accident doesn’t.

In light of what seems like overwhelming odds against me, I have researched what lifestyle changes help promote neurological health. I consciously hold my fork and brush my teeth with the opposite hand on occasion. I sometimes drive with thick gloves on. I work word and number puzzles regularly. I try to read things that stretch me. My mind still feels incredibly sharp. My memory is uncommonly good. I frequently floor my colleagues with my ability to recall random details about projects we did together years ago.

But then, both of my grandfathers were sharp as tacks until the dementia abruptly pulled the rug of recall out from under them. They were highly skilled at calculating construction measurements, shooting small game high in treetops and eyeballing plumb lines—to no avail.

In the end, I have to remind myself that dementia is not deity. God numbered my neurons when I was in the womb. They are no match for Him. He knows my frame, and has declared the beginning from the end.

I remind myself that, if I should lose my mind, He will not have lost His. My lucidity is not the measure of His love. He will sustain me with His right hand, no matter how thick the fog may get.

So while I’m in my right mind, I’m redeeming the time to trust Him more. Depend on Him more. Love Him more. Because losing my mind, as scary as that may be, is not the worst thing that can happen to me. Dementia may take my body, but it can’t touch my soul.

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