“Good evening,” said a silver-haired woman in creamy linen, as she floated past me with her dapper husband towards the veranda of the El Mirador restaurant. They had a dinner reservation; several waiters hurried to greet and seat them. Another waiter, just as gracious, seated my husband and me with the slightly reduced amount of pomp accorded to the drinks-only crowd. But every table at El Mirador was positioned to take in the show: sunset over the Pacific Ocean, high above the curvaceous Baja coast, backed by a chorus line of frilly clouds and kicked off by a surprise opening act: one spouting whale.
We sipped our drinks and savored our appetizer, a burrata and roasted tomato mélange almost too pretty to eat. We snapped photos, along with everyone else, and marveled that this elegant place existed, at the end of a dusty, bumpy, unpaved road.
Sunset. How we humans love it! The young woman in satin pants and an off-the-shoulder, pink maribou sweater, the mom in shorts with a wiggly seven-year-old, the glamorous older couple, the table full of young men who looked like they might’ve flown in that day from Silicon Valley. We gasp at the sun’s grand finale, we toast it, we take photos and then sigh that they don’t do it justice.
And yet: if our lives were a day, sunset is not where we would choose to be.
And yet: wouldn’t you rather dwell in the sunset, than go right from noon to midnight?
Am I really embarking on “an old age I wasn’t sure I’d have?” That’s how I put it recently, to a friend. The words just popped out of my mouth, without forethought. “Because of my mom,” I added, though I didn’t need to. My friend knew what I was talking about.
As of January 18, I am 66 years old. When my mother was 66, a neurologist sat her down and told her she probably had Alzheimer’s disease. (This was in 1997, before PET scans were widely available.) My sister and I were with her. My sister took notes. I just wanted to get away, “because I was having the one thought I knew I should not be having at such a moment: I’m not up to this. Whatever this is.”
That is what I wrote in Her Beautiful Brain, my memoir about Mom and Alzheimer’s. I wrote it because I wanted readers who might someday be in my shoes to know that wanting to flee from an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is a natural response. You’ll get past it; you’ll do the right thing. You will love and care for your mother or your father or your partner. You will watch them disappear, and you will grieve. But that moment when you first hear the news? Be kind to yourself, later, when you look back on how you felt as your ears took in those words.
27 years have passed since that day, and, until the aforementioned blurt to my friend, I have not been dwelling on it, at least not recently. Maybe it’s because I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with my dad, who is 89 and in pretty remarkable shape, cognitively. As I frequently tell him, he gives me great hope for my own future.
And yet the significance of 66, and the memory of that crushing hour with Mom at the neurologist’s office, somehow caught me off guard, in the middle of a conversation about my recent birthday. Oh. 66. Right.
When I began writing Her Beautiful Brain, 15 years ago, I wondered every day whether Mom’s fate would be mine. Every single day: through my 40s, through my 50s, into my 60s. But then, unlike most people my age, I began to allow myself to worry a little less. I could be jinxing myself by confessing to all of this. But I even worry a little less about jinxing. It’s because of Dad, and knowing I carry his genes too. It’s because of the routines of my daily life, all of which I (mostly) take for granted. I read, write, teach, and still occasionally make films. I’m a student, too: I’m currently taking a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) course at Seattle Central College.
Like most 66-year-olds, my word recall switch sometimes freezes up, but then it almost always un-freezes if I give it a minute, or ten. And my ability to do all the math required by our small filmmaking business by hand, without a calculator—a habit I decided to stick with, when my mom was ill, as a way of exercising my brain—is not quite as agile as it used to be. So you could say I’m down a few marbles: a way of looking at my brain that I credit to Michael Kinsley, who wrote, in a 2014 New Yorker article about his own diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, “We are comfortable with the idea that physical health is not just a single number but a multiplicity of factors. That’s where we need to arrive about mental problems. As we get older, we’re all going to lose a few of our marbles.”
I find that very comforting. A few marbles: normal. OK. Like having a bad knee.
I was born in January, and I think of myself as a natural Janus. “That lesser, restless, Roman gatekeeper god, always depicted in a double profile, looking forward and back? That’s me,” I wrote ten years ago. “I don’t want to forget the past; I want to mull it and sift it and puzzle over what it might mean. But I’m just as fascinated by the future. I strain to see ahead; I’m so curious to know what’s around the next curve. What adventures the new year might bring.”
At 66, that is still me. I’m still curious. Yes, dementia will always be on the list of things I fear. And I know I’m missing those recall-speed and fast-math marbles. But I want to be like the glamorous woman at El Mirador. I want to glide gracefully into as many more sunsets as I can. Owning my silver hair. Grateful for the billions of humming, buzzing neurons underneath every strand of it.
Seattle readers: Registration is open for my (in-person!) spring classes at Seattle Central College and Hugo House.