Chronic Healing

How to live despite and beyond chronic illness

Cardamom

Remember? ... Cardamom... Right?

It’s been the Season of the Lost Minds. A friend realizes she has begun the process of not knowing. She prefers this phrase to the words dementia or Alzheimer’s. The neurologist confirms her hunch. A brilliant academic commits suicide because her dementia was advancing and couldn’t be stopped. A beautiful death, many said, but perhaps only because they knew it was the way she had planned to die after receiving the diagnosis some years before. Another friend believes he is absolutely fit. But he spends his days spinning fantasy projects that are equal parts his distinguished professional history and absolute lunacy. His wife looks to me for guidance. I have nothing to offer.

My own spouse was lost for so long that when he did finally die from heart failure, I had almost forgotten who he had been. I had lost the man that existed before his mind took leave of him—before he then took leave of all of us. Before he rocked himself in his home hospital bed and gently knocked his forehead saying: Broken, you know. Broken, up here. It’s painful to recount that the man who originated television previewing back in the Golden Age of TV could not differentiate the remote control from an alarm clock. Or that he often insisted he was on a boat, a nice boat, but he wanted to get off the boat and return home.

I watched another dear friend descend into mental oblivion before his death, but somehow he retained his gift for friendship and his graceful manner. But his identity vanished. He had no notion he had written and published many books, nor did he have any recollection of the courses he had taught. His last years reminded me of the….

Wait. Be patient. It will come to me.

Yes! Got it!

Watching him look at his own books as if they were foreign objects reminded me of the story of the writer Iris Murdoch’s descent into the Land of the Lost Minds. John Bayley was Murdoch’s husband and he watched it all in real-time, up-close and personal. For me the most wrenching passage in Elegy for Iris is Bayley’s description of her picking up little stones and twigs on a walk and coming home to assemble them as small sculptures. He felt they were her new books—the only way she could tell a story without her mind. The words required for writing were lost forever, and so she worked with discarded bits of nothingness. For Murdoch, for my friend, and for my husband,—it was an awful journey away from a life of the mind and creativity to bits and fragments of thoughts. Their worlds were articulated in an unknown secret language. Their thinking was the product of brains that had become tangled.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s seem to be in the news constantly. News reports offer conflicting opinions. There’s more of it diagnosed. Or, there is really less of it, but it seems there is more of it because we are living longer. Or, face up to the facts folks, this is the affliction of the baby boom generation.

Depression may cause dementia. Pollution may cause dementia. Climate change may cause dementia. Stress causes it, as does everything else bad. Other suggested culprits: high cholesterol, cholesterol-lowering drugs, high blood pressure, family history, hormonal imbalance. Fill in your favorite theory of the week here.

Am I losing my mind too? I look for evidence that I’m on the same road as my friends and my spouse. There are days when I’m convinced it’s only a matter of time before devil-dementia hunts me down and stops me in my tracks. Unfortunately, not quickly dead in my tracks. That’s the horror of it; you can live for a long time with little spark activity in the brain cells. After a lifetime of severe chronic disease, I have little fear of dying, but I do have a terror of losing my ability to think, to write, to remember, to function. There’s no question I’m not as sharp as I was a decade ago, but I’m not yet elderly. I’ve got another couple of decades before that word would apply. But does the other apply now? Is it the beginning? A wise neurologist once said to me: "There’s the benign forgetfulness of aging, and then there is the really bad stuff."

I don’t think there’s anything benign about forgetting. Memory is the writer’s toolbox.

Which brings me again to Cardamom. These days I test myself all the time. What can I remember? What do I forget? I confused the words Luddite and troglodyte at a dinner the other night with friends.

But did I mention Cardamom?

I love to cook and to play with recipes and edit them, often making a series of variations on one dish. Spices and herbs are my playground. Cardamom, a strange and lovely one, figures in a number of my dishes. So there I was one night with another woman who loves to cook, and I said: I have been making a new kind of spicy nuts to serve with drinks.

What spices do you use? I recited all of them, until I wanted to tell her my favorite. Can’t recall the one I like the best, I said.

And I never did that night. Starts with a C, was all I could muster. In my sleep I went through all the C’s I knew in my mind, but bravely refused to allow myself to go into the kitchen and look. Curry, Coriander, Cumin, Cinnamon, Clove, Chili Powder, Cayenne, Chervil, Cream of Tartar, Chinese Five Spice.

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

I tried to let it go but it haunted me. Then one morning I woke up and said Cardamom. But then I asked myself, is it Cardamom or Cardamon. I cheated. I looked on the bottle’s label in the kitchen and reminded myself I once got rid of a perfectly nice high school boyfriend because he was a bad speller.

But it didn’t matter. I had the spice back on my mental rack of lost nouns. Cardamom. Cardamom. Cardamom. I wrote it on a scrap of paper and put it on my writing desk.

When I’m dying, there’s little doubt my very last word will be: Cardamom.

You know just like Rosebud, from that film…

You know…that famous film…

Directed by…

With… in the lead role.

You remember, don’t you?

Alida Brill is an award-winning writer, social critic, and women's advocate. Her most recent book is Dancing at the River's Edge: A Patient and her Doctor Negotiate Life with Chronic Illness. more...

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