Auguste Deter was a forty-something-year-old woman living in Kassel, Germany. She had a pleasant life with her husband and their only daughter; nothing extraordinary, but she was irreplaceable to her family and her to them. So it was especially hard when Auguste began to show signs of “old age” well before her time. Her memory began to fail. She started suffering from delusions, confusion, and anxiety.
The family did the best they could, but finally Auguste was hospitalized. She was diagnosed with the “Disease of Forgetfulness” by the pioneering German doctor, Dr. Alois Alzheimer. The “Disease of Forgetfulness” now bears that doctor’s name, of course, and we have all learned that mental failure is not the result of growing old. It is often a disease of the brain, and it sometimes strikes people who are far too young.
Case in point: The magnificent Pat Summitt. A few years ago, when she announced she was stepping down as head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers, it was the end of what Summitt called “a great ride.” For those of us who watched her coach these past four decades, pacing courtside like a coiled tiger and staring down players with that icy, piercing gaze, it was the final touch on a gold-gilded treasure.
Her accolades are voluminous: The all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history; 16 conference titles; 18 Final Four appearances; 8 national championships; a silver Olympic medalist as a player and a gold medalist as a coach; never a coaching season with a losing record; and, maybe the most remarkable accomplishment, every one of her players who completed eligibility at the University of Tennessee graduated – every young woman.
Though Pat Summitt’s coaching career has ended, certainly her life has not. She remains a hero (now more than ever) and will go on with grace and strength, but she will have to do so with some help from her friends and family. From all appearances, those friends and family will be there loving, helping, and supporting her every step of the way.
Many heroic people – not as well-known as Pat Summitt, but just as accomplished in their own way – are ambushed by this hellacious illness. In the fray that follows, those playing supportive roles emerge with equal heroics of their own.
Like my friend Betty; for 50 years she has been a church pianist. As Alzheimer’s tightens its grip on her mind she still dresses in her choir robe on Sundays, sits close to her grand piano, and when she gets her cue, she goes to the bench and plays Bach as surely and confidently as she did decades earlier. Her church could afford a new pianist, but they love Betty. They want her to play as long as she can, and at times they graciously order their entire worship service to accommodate her.
There is one of my personal heroes and mentors, Dr. Ron, who recently died from dementia. As his vigorous mind began to unravel, hundreds stepped forward to assist his wife and family – an entire community. We all had been helped, inspired, directed, and changed by his life. How could we not lend a bit of help in his most difficult days?
And there is my own father-in-law who has embarked on his own journey into the “Disease of Forgetfulness.” The family will journey with him, at times smiling as he forgets a name or suddenly behaves as a child; at other times weeping over how his past memories have been stolen from him; and sometimes buckling beneath the near unbearable weight of caring for one who was once capable of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
But what other choice is there? When one has given his or her life to us, how can we not give a little of our life in return? Yes, some of our heroes will forget almost everything: Their accomplishments, the lives they once lived, and maybe our very names; but love will not let us forget them, especially when they need us most.