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  • I visited Warren and Dorothy at the VA hospital the other day. Warren is 91 and as kind and cantankerous in a state of dementia as he has been since I met him twenty years ago. Dorothy, his wife of 65 years, is as sound and stalwart as ever. She takes the bus to the hospital and sits by his bed every day. He sleeps.

    When he woke on Saturday to the sound of our voices, Warren climbed from his bed to give me a hug. "I don't know you," he said, "but I'm glad you're here."

    We walked through the ward together, the three of us, Warren exhibiting all of his old math professor precision and curiosity as he pointed out windows, chairs and tables in a litany of the mundane. "What do you do to keep yourself alive?" he asked me. "I breathe," I teased, knowing he meant something else entirely. In his dementia he had got to the heart of the matter. Unable to retrieve the phrase exactly, he expressed it in a way we no longer consciously do. What do you do for a living? "I work for the government," I answered a second time, but he was off down the hall to other, more interesting things.

    I find it terrifying to visit my father, my friends - to witness their decline and to imagine my own. I am ambiguous at best on the extraordinary medical "miracles" that sustain us well beyond our capacity to "keep ourselves alive." Yet I am reminded by Warren and by my mother who suffered ten years of dementia before she died, that even and most particularly in a state of confusion we remain (or become) ourselves. My father, like Dorothy, watched his partner slowly disappear beyond his reach. Yet he was more present with her, more visibly intimate, than I had seen him in my lifetime. "I have fallen in love with her all over again," he admitted to me one day. "I know it seems strange. But I see what a fundamentally kind and loving person she is even now, especially now, when she has no control over her true self, and I love who she is."

    Love. Kindness. Curiosity. They are the heart of the matter when we have the wherewithal to "keep ourselves alive," and the best we can hope for when we lose the capacity to know who we are.
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