22: Living Without Math

22: Living Without Math

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Living Without Math

Mathematics are well and good but nature keeps dragging us around by the nose.

~Albert Einstein

I recently took a good, hard look at myself in the mirror. My eyelids are beginning to sag over my blue eyes. My ruddy sun-damaged skin is going slack around my ears. I have a lone freckle on my plump bottom lip.

“Hi Dad,” I said to my forty-seven-year-old reflection. “I’d recognize you anywhere.”

Long before my father died of complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease, people frequently remarked on our similar appearance. I usually denied their observation.

“How can a little girl look exactly like a grown man?” I’d say with my hands on my slender hips, unconsciously imitating my father’s own determined stance.

But our physical resemblance and shared character traits were uncanny: long-armed, big-lipped, blue-eyed, loose-jointed, freckle-skinned, angst-ridden Bercaws. Except for our male and female chromosomes, nearly everything about us was a perfect match.

Yet I always felt like my own person. Even at a young age, I preferred stories to science. I wanted to write; Dad wanted to cure. We weren’t exactly the same.

My dad, Dr. Beauregard Lee Bercaw, decided to become a neurologist after watching his father — the accidental curator of this gene pool — succumb to Alzheimer’s. My dad feared that because he looked just like his dad, the disease would come for him, too.

So great was his worry that my dad the doctor even kept his father’s autopsied brain in a jar on his office desk. Consequently, grandpa’s gray matter and my dad’s macabre dread became the center of my childhood universe.

“Use your head for something other than a hat rack,” I heard repeatedly in my youth, because lazy thinking was the staunch enemy of any Bercaw. My dad hoped that he could ward off Alzheimer’s by constantly trying to improve his mind, and mine. He paid me to read books one summer in high school when I asked if I could work at McDonald’s.

I had my own Merck Manual by age ten. I learned the Heimlich maneuver from Dr. Heimlich himself. Meanwhile, my father busied himself with a second mortgage on our house to buy the first CT scanner in the state of Florida.

As my father approached middle age he began to experiment on himself with diet supplements. By age sixty he was taking seventy-eight tablets a day. He tracked down anything that offered the possibility of saving brain cells and killing free radicals: Omega 3s, 6s, 9s; vitamins E and C; ginkgo biloba, rosemary, and sage; folic acid; flaxseed.

This was 1999, mind you, long before herbal supplements were household words. My dad also eschewed sugar and alcohol. He played tennis three times a week. He scolded me when he saw sodium laureth sulfate listed as an ingredient in one of my shampoo bottles.

After retiring from his neurology practice, my dad turned his full attention to math puzzles. Even when I was visiting, he’d sit silently on his leather recliner with a calculator to verify the accuracy of computations he did by memory. I quietly wished that he would talk to me.

Be careful what you wish for, he had warned me many times. As if to clarify the point, Dad looked up from his Sudoku game once to say, “Promise me that you’ll put a gun to my head if I turn out like my father.”

I didn’t kill my dad. Instead, I watched helplessly as he declined. He spent the last eighteen months of his life in a memory care facility until a Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection ravaged what was left of him.

My dad died on April 2, 2012, a month before his seventy-fourth birthday — the same age at which his own father had passed away.

I’ve been seeing a lot of my dad again lately. And not just in the mirror. He comes to mind whenever I forget to take my antidepressant medication. Or when a name escapes me. Worse yet, when I witness my nine-year-old son acting like a Bercaw.

I wonder what I might find if I could look behind my face into my brain. Amyloid-beta plaques settling into my shrinking cerebrum? Neurofibers tangled with tau protein? Proof I am the next Bercaw up to bat for Alzheimer’s disease?

My father believed I was. For my thirty-fifth birthday, he surprised me with the genetic test for the APOE marker, which can indicate a predisposed genetic risk for Alzheimer’s. APOE-2 is relatively rare and may even provide some protection against the disease. APOE-3 is the most common and appears to have a neutral role. APOE-4 indicates the highest risk factor.

Like my father, I carry the APOE-3 gene, which means I may or may not get the disease.

But he did get Alzheimer’s — and he believed I would, too. Regardless of our indeterminate test results, he inferred that Bercaws and Alzheimer’s were part of the same double helix.

Still, I can choose not to be like my father. I may have inherited his genes, but I can decide not to share his obsession. I don’t want to spend the second half of my time on earth worrying about whether or not I’m going to get Alzheimer’s disease.

I want to show my son what’s worth living for — and the answer isn’t math. Life is measured in love, not in brain mass.

~Nancy Stearns Bercaw

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