From One Language to Another

Dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease and the many permutations of those diseases have affected my family for years and years.  I imagine we could be a case study for these debilitating afflictions.

Beginning in the 1960s, my family faced a series of crises related to severe memory loss in many members of my extended family.  The first person I witnessed facing these diseases was my great grandmother.  I watched her slowly loose her mind; she lost the ability to perform daily functions and ultimately was bound to a wheelchair in my grandfather’s family home.

Mama Gee, as everyone called her, was an intelligent, strong, powerful woman, taking on the task of maintaining the family during the 1930s when her husband died of unknown causes.  She organized the kids, all twelve of them, into a kind of military routine of tending the fields and household.  Her work ethic and desire to give a better life to her her children drove her to expand the farm and sell produce at Farmer’s Markets in Athens, Whitehall, Winterville, and other parts of north Georgia.

When I knew her, in her nineties, she was on her slow decline into dementia.  In the end she was either confined to her bed or in a wheelchair most of the time, her voice taken from her with a hemorrhagic stroke sometime in the late 1960s.  I was a small child and seeing Mama Gee squeeze a red ball in her right hand while everyone clapped for her was among the most interesting moments of my young life.

Today, all of my great aunts and uncles from my grandfather’s family have died.  All of those who survived into their 70s faced the difficulty of mental degradation and some form of Alzheimer’s or dementia.  To be specific, of the 12 brothers and sisters, 8 suffered from this disease.

I was raised in this environment, taking care of these people at various stages of disability as they lost control of their minds.  My father and mother often were called on to help out one of the aunts or uncles struggling with their siblings in the house.

On one particular day, my great aunt Emma could not reach my parents and got me on the phone at the house.  “Tad, Raymond is running around the house outside and we can’t get him back inside.  He wants to drive the car.”  The last time Raymond drove the car we looked for him for hours and hours, finally finding him at a laundromat, sitting in a chair, dressed in suit and tie, with a green fedora on his head.  This dark green hat was a staple of his wardrobe and he never left home without it.

I walked from my grandmother’s house two blocks to my relatives house on Cherokee Drive.  Raymond was walking around outside in the yard just past the porch by the side of the house, aimlessly wandering in circles with a stick in his hand, one that had fallen from the massive oak tree in the yard.  This late summer day was hot and dry.  The grass was a deep green-brown color and the red dirt of Georgia was easily visible between the leaves of grass in the yard.  Small acorns were scattered in what was left of the yard and Raymond was clearly agitated as he stomped around, mumbling to himself.

“Raymond? Hey it’s Tad, what are you doing?” His anger rose immediately and without a word chased me around the yard, stick in hand.  Raymond, an 82 year old man, was 6’1″, about 160 pounds, wearing his suit and tie and hat, swinging the stick at me.  He was remarkably fast.  I, at 15, could barely stay out of the reach of the stick.  “Raymond! Calm down….I’m here to just see how you are doing!”  He didn’t stop.  We ran in circles, and I figured in a few minutes he would wear out.  His face dripped with sweat, winded, agitated, angry.  I kept running.

A few minutes later, my Dad pulled up and got out of the car, calling out to Raymond “stop it!”.  Raymond, preoccupied with smacking me, did not see my Dad come up behind him and grab him around the waist.  He lurched to a stop and breathed heavily as my Dad grabbed the stick and tossed it toward the street.  He related into the strong arms surrounding his and we walked him back in the house.

That one moment, pinned in my mind, stands out as a glaring example of someone who had, quite literally, lost their mind.  I was fascinated and awed.  What IS mind?  How can we loose complete control over its function?

AS I came to understand mind, I found that there was a language, an internal communication we have with our mind.  What I also found, however, is the fact that what we are talking to in our minds is, very simply, our ego mind.  That ongoing internal language that no one else hears is our conversation with ego-mind. Hmmmm.

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