Under this severity, nobody with brain damage is a person, and Alzheimer's, so often misreferred to as a mental illness, involves a catastrophic form of brain damage.
Materialists would contend that there is no soul, that we are only a kind of organic machine, our notion of a unique self misguided. It's difficult not to be convinced by this idea, seeing Nancy's selfhood warp and flicker and wane as the disease colonizes her. It's not good - not even for privileged bystanders, counting their blessings - to see a self under attack. We prefer to think of our selves as something original in the world, inviolate, in de pen dent of our physical bodies. The idea that we are biochemistry, and that's all, that thoughts and feelings are produced by neurons, that neurons can die and our selves die with them . . . that's a deeply undermining idea. It's far more comforting to contend that Nancy's soul, her essential self, remains intact beyond the reach of her struggle to think and express herself, and will be liberated and restored by immortality. I try hard to believe this when I see her, alone in the dayroom in the nursing home, sitting rubbing her hands together and muttering. I can't help wondering what she's thinking. Is she thinking? Is she having a dialogue with her disease, negotiating with it in some way, aware of the great buried store of memory, her past, her self, glimpsed under the tangles of Alzheimer's like a ruined house under the suffocating grip of ivy?
Now that she's at one remove from us again, it's easy to love her, and where love falters, guilt is primed and ready to fill its place.
Copyright © 2010 by Andrea Gillies
From the book Keeper by Andrea Gillies, published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
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