The man had been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Being an army medical officer, he had attempted to care for other prisoners. It had been an impossible task. He talked little of his experiences, but they had made him steely in his treatment of himself. One day I received word he had been diagnosed with cancer. Calling at his house, he was out and I left a card. That evening he phoned, ‘You called today, and I missed you’.
‘Yes. I er . . I heard you had bad news’.
‘News? Oh yes, I have prostate cancer, but I’m 85 years old’; what of it? Do call up and see me; I enjoy our chats’.
Three years later, he died. His son, also a doctor, said to me after the funeral “Did you know my father was delighted when he developed cancer?”
‘Because he was terrified of dementia. He realized when he got the diagnosis that the cancer would now get him before the dementia did’.
Sitting at a lunch table recently, I was asked about dementia and remembered the doctor. I mumbled some response.
It has become distressing to watch people whom one has known for some years slowly slip away into an unknowing. People who sparkled even in recent times become shadows of themselves and fade into a twilight existence.
Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Human Traces’ captures a sense of the bewilderment.
He looked up and forced himself to regroup. ‘Yes. Yes. I just have to say, while I am still able, a sort of goodbye, or at least an au revoir. Some weeks ago I … Er, I suffered a peculiar experience. I do not wish to go into it except to say that I appeared to lose my memory. I was in a police station with no recollection of how I had got there. I was not unhappy, I just did not know what was going on. I was like King Lear. “Methinks I should know you, and know this man;/ Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant/What place this is; and all the skill I have/Remembers not these garments; nor I know not/Where I did lodge last night.” Anyway, to … To cut a long story short, I have been to see various distinguished gentlemen¬at the hospital in Queen Square and it appears that I am in her early stages of some kind of senile or pre-senile dementia.
‘Rather interestingly, it has been named after Alois Alzheimer . . .
. . . He looked back to his postcard. It said: ‘Age.’
‘Yes. Age. I am rather young to have this sort of thing, though perhaps sixty does not seem so young to the children at the far end of the table. The truth is that we know very little about this illness. We know very little about anything, as a matter of fact. Never mind. It is really not important. It is just that one day I may no longer know your name, and I ask you to forgive me if I pass you in the street or on the stairs and my face does not light up with love or recognition. Please forgive me. I shall no longer be myself. I am going into a dark country and I very much wanted to say goodbye to those that I have loved before I go. . .
. . . He gazed once more down through the mist of faces until he saw the features of the woman he had loved – no longer young, but red and twisted with grief, shining with tears.
‘I have been blessed beyond what any man could hope or wish for,’ said Thomas. ‘All I ask now is somewhere safe to live. I must pull in sail and lower my sights from the horizon. I am quite content to do so because I have been so fortunate in my life. I always felt that if I had to make a speech like this I should find some Shakespearean eloquence. But it is too late and the plain words will have to do. As a doctor, I have achieved absolutely nothing. Nothing at all, though God knows I tried. But in love I have been rich. Once long ago I finished a lecture in another place by saying we should try to make our lives a hymn of thanks – or some such phrase. I do not think it was a very memorable phrase, even to someone without my difficulties. I shall do my best to follow my own advice. All I ask is for your forgiveness.’
He looked one last time down the table of anxious faces. ‘My mind may not know you,’ he said, ‘but in my heart you are remembered.’
‘In my heart you are remembered’ – perhaps the only place memory remains.