Thursday, October 4, 2012

Goodbye, Monroe

Joe Nadel with Eli (on pony) and Monroe
My uncle Monroe died Tuesday night.  He left us years ago, bit by bit as his mind was swallowed into the gaping maw of Alzheimer's. What was left bore no resemblance to the uncle I loved as a child.  It was a bitter, angry shell, confused and lost. But occasionally, a spark would come through. Just like I would occasionally see a glimmer of my father in my uncle's gestures after my father had died, I'd see a flash of that uncle in the old man who lived in his body. But a diseased mind is a tricky thing, and that flash could be extinguished all to suddenly.

There are dozens of stories I could tell, some humorous, some with great pathos, about how Alzheimer's claims a soul. The moment that comes to mind most often was a few years ago, when we took the train to New York for the funeral of my cousin Jon, who died suddenly.* We came up the night before and stayed in Brooklyn. As we stood at the deli counter, getting our breakfast before heading into town for the service, an old man wandered in, followed by a woman. It took me a moment to realize that the frail but dapper man, his full head of silver hair neatly combed, was my uncle. It was only by happenstance that we met at that deli, but we shared a meal with them.  My aunt was still shell-shocked at the sudden death of her eldest child. My uncle was dazed, but somehow unfazed. He recognized me, once I identified myself, but a few minutes later, told me he had a niece named Amy. Did I know her? Then his eyes clouded, as he tried to remember.

"I have a son named Jon. I have a son named Jon, and he died. He died. Did you know him?"

His bewilderment and grief clutched my heart. I reached for my husband's hand, and squeezed hard.

"Yes, I knew him. And, I loved him. I love you too, Uncle Monroe. I'm so sorry Jon is gone."

"Jon's gone?" he replied. "I have a son named Jon. What's your name?"

At the memorial, friends and family spoke. It was a heartbreakingly beautiful tribute. And my heart, already broken by the sudden death of my cousin, shattered even more, as I saw my uncle looking around, and heard him ask, "Where's Jon?"

Not too long ago, my Uncle turned 90. He outlived most of his generation in that family. He was frail, confused, occasionally combative, and difficult. His world had changed as much to him as he had to us.  He'd always taken great care of his looks, meticulous in the care of his face and hair. He might have weighed next to nothing near the end, but he still kept his hair combed, even if he used a toothbrush to do it instead of a comb.

Goodbye Monroe. Though your mind and spirit left us years ago, courtesy of Alzheimer's, your body just caught up. I have golden memories of you from childhood, my daddy's baby brother. And it makes me smile to think that though you didn't know who you were, you were happy to be 90, with all your own teeth and a full head of hair.

*The boy with laughter in his eyes

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