One of the most powerful books I’ve read about dementia is Out of Mind by J. Bernlef. It was originally published in Dutch in 1984 and then translated into English and published in the United States by David R. Godine in 1988. It opens with the narrator Maarten Klein looking out his living room window and wondering why the local children with their schoolbags and shrill voices aren’t scrambling down the street, as they do every morning. His wife walks into the room, serving tea, and reminds him it’s Sunday afternoon.
More than 20 years later I remember this brilliantly created novel because of its unforgettable rendering of an erosion of memory. One realizes from Maarten’s vivid internal world, this must be what it feels like gradually to lose one’s memory. This past week, reading John Thorndike’s memoir of his father’s Alzheimer’s disease, I learned what that erosion looks like from a son who becomes his father’s caretaker. Written in a journal-like style, The Last of His Mind is an insightful, forthright and open-hearted dive into the ravages of rapid onset dementia.
Thorndike moved into his father’s house on Cape Cod in 2005 when the frail, confused 91-year-old Joe Thorndike could neither dress himself nor find words to express himself. This was a man who, in the late 1940s, worked at Life magazine as its managing editor, under the renowned publishing tycoon Henry Luce. He engaged with such writers as John Kenneth Galbraith, John Dos Passos, James Thurber and Winston Churchill, whose WWII book Joe helped distill into excerpts that were published in successive issues of Life in the spring of 1948. Joe Thorndike eventually left Life to become one of the founders of American Heritage and Horizon magazines.
As John Thorndike dresses and bathes his father, serves meals and daily tries to elicit reactions, often taking Joe on drives to the beach, he tries to find ways to interact with his father, rather than impose controlling structures that would make his own life easier. He also painfully and desperately tries to get his father to talk about his career and their family history, wrestling with his father’s disconnected memories. The house is filled with archived photos, letters and articles in boxes and filing cabinets, and these John explores, painfully resurrecting his mother’s romantic affairs and giving us a peek inside their privileged family life.
One of the shining glories of this moving father-son portrait is that it squashes the fear conjured by Alzheimer’s and shows us how the debilitating process suffered by a loved one can be accepted and embraced. Consider, from the last month of his father’s life, when John Thorndike writes, “All year I’ve been one with my father. Of course I’ve been sad at times, even miserable when he was miserable, but not once have I been depressed. I’ve been engaged, I’ve been involved, and that is happiness to me.”
The Last of His Mind: A Year in the Shadow of Alzheimer’s was first published in 2009 as a hardcover edition. The paperback came out in March this year.