Alzheimer’s poetry: My father recounts his life in oddly beautiful stanzas – Jane Macdougall

There is something hauntingly beautiful about language unmoored.

David Shackleton for National Post

Jane Macdougall, Weekend Post · Friday, Feb. 11, 2011

My father is a poet. At least, he is now. Odd, that.

He trained as an accountant. And he was the accountant’s accountant — all ledgers and columns; compliances and balances. Tidy. So at odds with family life. With life, in general.

He wore hats. Always hats: for work, for curling, for yard work, for excursions — a hat for every purpose. I realize now he was always staving off the chaos of the jungle.

Shoes were polished with religious fervour and regular devotion. Sunday morning he would set the boys to the task and, in time, they subverted the job by simply dusting off the unworn shoes. It was, I suppose, a type of catechism; but my, did it annoy the natives. I always said he was the sort of man who gave colonialism a bad name.

Shoe trees were essential.

Wooden hangers: the very backbone of his civilization.

Who vs. whom: I know the difference and I owe it to him.

Are you impressed?


Yes, what?

Yes, sir!

And rising when an elder entered the room. We owe him that, too, my brothers and sister. We are better — and worse — for his rigidities.

Archaic English usages I lay claim to, courtesy of a man who refused to let language evolve. Sophisticated would forever rely upon its foundation of sophistry, meaning to deceive, not as we think of it today, meaning to impress.

And now, he is a poet.

He owes it to the presence of beta-amyloid plaques in his brain. We know it as Alzheimer’s, dementia of cinematic proportions. Documented since Alois Alzheimer defined the disease in 1906, there is no cure, no medication, not even a conclusive diagnostic test. From diagnosis to death: on average, seven years.

Seven crazy years.

One need only to see my father now to immediately understand that something has gone dreadfully awry. It’s in his eyes. His hair. His gait. He looks confused; he is confused. The word confused is based on the Latin confundere meaning “to mingle together,” and from Middle English, meaning “to bring to ruin.”


Autopsy will reveal plaques that erected Detour and Road Closure signs in his head. Neural signals bounce around until they are abducted by dendrites hungry for instruction. The instructions, however, are misdirected. Although, misdirected doesn’t begin to describe the chaos created by mistaking the kitchen for the bathroom.

If I ever doubted that one is one’s thoughts, I don’t doubt it now.

Like a thief in the night, Alzheimer’s steals the family silver, one utensil at a time, until there isn’t enough left for a single place setting. But the thief is nefarious: He leaves the knives so that danger is ever present. The presence of madness causes madness; ask any caregiver. The caregiver gets ground down to a nub. No surprise there: What can be expected when nothing can be expected? Cancer doesn’t jettison reason; congestive heart disease doesn’t forsake judgment. Alzheimer’s does.

Information on the subject discusses the slow impoverishment of oral and written language, but it’s more profound than just communicating with others; one loses the ability to communicate with oneself.

The hallmark of Alzheimer’s is the loosening grip on memory. Dad is already forgetting who we are. But forget is too feeble a word. Already he wants to know what we are doing in his house.

His notes, with time, date and full signature faithfully listed, offer a chilling glimpse into the mind disordered by disease. Almost without exception, they are incomprehensible.

But there is something hauntingly beautiful about language unmoored; a stream of consciousness that is truly unconscious. He speaks now in a type of haiku that is often illuminating. Dead simple. Child-like. Impervious to outside understanding yet, often numinously transparent:

Go read the rest….

Heartbreakingly beautiful love letter to her father.

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