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D.G. Martin: Learning how to live — and die

Alzheimerís. Just the word scares you to death, doesnít it?
A few years ago, I saw an article that described and gave examples of a new mental test that can make a very reliable preliminary diagnosis of early onset Alzheimerís.
I read every word. I answered every question. I will tell you why in a minute.
My family has a long interest in this disease. It slowly robs its victims of the ability to remember and to reason. Then it takes their personalities and slowly steals their lives away.
My father was a victim. After his death, my mother spent the last part of her life comforting the families of victims, organizing support groups, and raising money to find the causes of Alzheimerís.
But there is more to it, more that explains why any article about Alzheimerís always stops me in my tracks.
More than 40 years ago my father, only 58 years old, learned he was afflicted with early onset Alzheimerís. A successful college president, widely admired and loved, he seemed happy with his work and ready for many years of additional service to his college and community.
It never seemed fair.
But, of course, the killer diseases that bring about premature death never seem fair.
Now, why did I try all the questions on that test that made the preliminary check for Alzheimerís? Well, we all worry sometimes, donít we? We worry about losing little bits of memory and wonder if perhaps, God forbid, it might be Alzheimerís?
I worry, too, but then I think about my dad, and it is more than worry.
I am older than my dad was when he found out about his Alzheimerís.
So I think about it more. It is not so much worrying about losing my memory. In fact, I did well on the test. Instead, I mourn the loss of what my father would have taught me had he been spared.
My fatherís life was full of monuments for me. He showed me how to live and serve with grace and honor. His example was a good one, all the way until Alzheimerís brought him down.
Now I ask myself, ěWho teaches me how to live the rest of my life? Whose example do I follow now?î
I miss not knowing how he would have dealt with all the things life brings in late middle age and retirement years. And now, when normal old age would almost certainly have brought about his death even if Alzheimerís had not taken him so early, I miss most of all not having had the chance to watch and learn how he would have faced his normal aging and death.
You see, Alzheimerís stole not just his life. It stole his ability to face death and deal with it.
I wish I had his example. I think it would have been a good one. But I will never know.
Meanwhile, I can watch and learn from others.
Terry Sanford, for instance. When the former governor and senator received a diagnosis of ěinoperable cancer,î he turned it into a challenge to live to the fullest until his death in 1998. He figured out new ways to persuade people to support good causes. He seemed to be telling us, ěI am going to live a lot longer than you might think, but however long it is, it is going to be good.î
I like that example.
When the time comes, I hope I can follow it.
And, if I do, I know that my dad would be proud.

D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TVís ěNorth Carolina Bookwatch,î which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m and Sundays at 5 p.m.

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