Thomas Sleete on dementia and friendship for Salt & Iron

Facing the Loss that Comes with Age

The baby boomers are getting older and will stay older longer. And they will run right into the dementia firing range.

Terry Pratchett

Often out of periods of losing come the greatest strivings toward a new winning streak.

Fred (Mister) Rogers

I’m losing my oldest friend.

Six years ago, my wife—my love and half of me—died. Two years later, my cousin, whom I love like a sister, was afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer’s. She now recognizes no one from her family or life. I am intimately familiar with bereavement.

Now, dementia ever so slowly takes my friend. His name is Rich, and we share such a history. College friends and compatriots, we traveled together in America to the tune of over twenty thousand miles in cars, vans, and on motorcycles through the past fifty-some years. We, as the song says, stood on the corner in Winslow Arizona, had a mountain lion watch us as we swam under a waterfall in an isolated stretch of the Kaweah River in California, just missed going over the edge of a mountain on motorcycles at the Continental Divide, and saw so many more adventures.

He came to my wedding without answering the invitation, driving all the way from California to Michigan as a surprise he and my wife planned in secret.

We laughed with, at, and for each other. He never forgave me for getting a B in Transformational Grammar in college when he got a C. He always claimed that the only reason for it was that I had a scholarship, and he didn’t. He constantly reminded me of the time I set him up with a very unpleasant woman, simply so that we could go on a double date with her “gorgeous blonde” friend.

Rich would often say, “I like me. Who do you like?” Then he would laugh.

The Long Goodbye

Nancy Reagan once called dementia “the long goodbye.” I now watch my best friend rapidly descend into its walled mental incarceration at the age of 77. It hurts deeply.

In the third Hobbit movie, Tauriel weeps, “‘Thrandull, if this is love, I do not want it! Take it from me, please. Why does it hurt so much?’ ‘Because it was real.’”

I detest missing Rich while he physically remains here. I know loss comes with aging. I’ve mourned the passing of several friends in recent years and only hold the memories that live on. I struggle more, however, with this division between the healthy physical person and the deteriorating mental individual I see in Rich.

The best advice I have read about dementia comes from David Mitchell: “Act as if the person you know is still inside the wreckage. If you’re wrong, and the person you knew is gone, then no damage is done but the standards of care stay high; if you’re right and the person you knew is still bricked up inside, then you are a lifeline.”

Fight On

I’m not whining about Rich. He would mock me mercilessly for doing so. Instead, I’ll fight on, just as he, my cousin, my lost friends, and especially my wife would want me to.

I will do the best things for myself mentally and physically. I will treasure my children and grandchildren and leave a legacy of faith for them. I will enjoy my friends and do as much as I can for those less fortunate. I will worship. I have so much for which to live, and I thank the Lord for it.

The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “The comfort of having a friend may be taken away, but not that of having had one.” 

I miss you, Rich. As you once said to me, “We didn’t sit on the porch, complain, and drink beer like those other guys, we went out and grabbed life by the throat and lived it.” I’ll always remember.

Author: Thomas F. Sleete

Thomas F. Sleete is a retired American History teacher and educational consultant with over 44 years of experience. That from which he derives the most enjoyment in this world is his interaction with, and love for, his grandchildren. The Lord guided and comforted him through the loss of his wife, and one way he seeks to glorify the name of Jesus at every opportunity is through his writing.

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