My neighbor Edie, who has macular degeneration, recently hired a woman I know to be her driver for errands and appointments. Because this woman — let’s call her Paula — told Edie she and I are friends, Edie has been plying me for information.
Edie is a great neighbor and wonderful woman, apart from an unfortunate love of garden gnomes and of gossip, both of which I prefer to avoid. Edie is curious in this instance because while Paula has spoken of a husband, a daughter and grandchildren, she senses some hole in the fabric of truth. I know why, though Edie doesn’t: Paula has somehow neglected to mention her female partner of some 25 years, whom she recently married.
I am averse to lies of omission, but it’s possible to tell one’s own truth without gossiping about another’s. So when Edie asked me this morning how I came to know Paula, I told her I’d met her more than 30 years ago in the lesbian community.
“I don’t know anything about her nationality,” my neighbor said.
Now we were both puzzled, because while Edie’s vision is failing, her hearing is just fine. Then I realized that my neighbor — who has lived a conventional life, and had never known an openly Lebanese person before me — was having trouble reconciling a husband, a child and grandchildren with lesbianism. Her aging brain punted, and somehow made fair-skinned, blond Paula Lebanese instead of the infinitely more plausible lesbian.
This had the effect of making me laugh — quietly, to myself, because correcting Edie would have invited the gossip I wished to avoid, plus I didn’t want to hurt her feelings — and of making me feel all warm and fuzzy toward my 76-year-old friend. Her brain, I figured, is slowly dissolving in a sea of decrepitude, no longer able to think quickly nor clearly.
I was still basking in this gently affectionate condescension as I took my morning run along a trail above my home, where I encountered several hikers. “You’re a beautiful runner!” one said to me as I passed. “How glice!” I called back. “Glank you so must!”
Now, I have written about this sort of thing before, preferring not to see it as a sign of aging, but rather as some sort of mysterious synaptic brain fart that occasionally occurs between stimulus and response, causing me to speak like an idiot.
But my “occasionally” is becoming more frequent: When it comes to using my words, I can identify a starting point and an ending point, but not always the path between. I feel a bit like Algernon, the titular laboratory mouse in the book that became the movie Charley: Having been temporarily elevated to intelligence, clarity and coherence, I am now slipping slowly, inexorably back toward involuntary dumbness, wandering around the maze forgetting which way to turn for the cheese, and sometimes forgetting even that I was looking for it.
In Flowers for Algernon, the cause of the mouse’s ascension — and subsequently, that of the human subject, Charley — is experimental surgery, which later fails, not only returning Algernon to ordinary-mouse intelligence, but eventually killing him. You know, like youth does human beings, followed by its failure, which we call aging.
Now, I am not a scientist, but I have a solid grasp of the neurological effects of getting old. When you are young, your brain looks like this:
When you are old, it looks like this:
All of which is to say, my days of gently laughing at Edie’s eroding grey matter are limited, because at 58, I can feel myself joining her. It’s not just that the right word escapes me, sometimes replaced by gibberish; it’s also that the quick, clear thought becomes leaden, turbid. And that I forget where I’ve read what, and confuse facts and ideas.
Every time I acknowledge this, I want a beer — not withstanding recent evidence that even moderate alcohol consumption damages the brain. Which seems cruel, sort of like not just giving dumb and dying Algernon the cheese he loves simply because even moderate cheese consumption causes brain damage.
At least I think I read that somewhere …