Friday, August 19, 2005

Recycled pre-blog bits: entry #2, from 3/4/2001

The Desert Island Game - For Real This Time

Most of us have seen some variation on "the desert island quiz". If you were stranded on a desert island, what 3 CDs would you want to have with you (presumably, you'd also get a CD player and a large supply of batteries)? Or what two people would you want to be stranded with (answer: my wife and almost anyone except Gilligan)? Or what dozen supplies?

You get the idea - You're suddenly left without all the thousands of things that get you through the day - what handful of things are most important to you? It's a potentially intriguing intellectual exercise, but is that all it is?

Alzheimer's Disease, and, to a lesser extent, Senile Dementia, can be very much like an unplanned trip to a desert island. Your memories are stripped away, and eventually you're left with just a handful, that come and go as they please. Entirely beyond your control if you have Alzheimer's.

My grandmother, who had a mild case of senile dementia, lived until she was 97. Toward the end, she would do this daily litany of reciting the important facts of her life: "My name is Mildred Schneider Kent, I was married to Lee Carson Kent, who died in 1966. I have four children named Martha, Carson, Nancy, and Joan. I have eleven grandchildren, their names are..." It was how she kept rein over her memory.

My wife's Aunt Frances did have Alzheimer's. Several years into her disease, at church one Sunday, she began muttering in Polish. Her kids were with her, and didn't speak Polish, but were able to find some nuns that did. And they recognized her mutterings as traditional Polish prayers she would have learned as a child. They knelt and prayed with her for nearly a half hour. Then she sort of went blank again. The kids called up Aunt Sophie, the keeper of the family lore, and confirmed that they had learned these prayers as children. To her knowledge, Frances probably hadn't said those prayers for 65 or 70 years.

Song is an excellent memory device - most of us learn to sing our ABCs in order to learn to say them. And I'm guessing a lot of us have big chunks of Psalm 91 memorized, thanks to Fr. Michael Joncas' "On Eagle's Wings".

Here's something I've mentioned before: weekly hymn singing with my family when I was growing up, and what a big influence that was in my adult life. My mom told me later that the reason she and Dad had decided to do that was because of the Cuban missile crisis. They bought little ID bracelets for us in case we got separated, and taught us hymns that reflected our faith, so that in case we were orphaned or abducted, we'd know the tenets of our faith.

So songs like "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise", "The Lord's Prayer", "Onward, Christian Soldiers", "What A Friend We Have in Jesus" - these were all mini religious ed lessons. And we learned them, without ever knowing it was supposed to be good for us (hey Mikey!).

I'm guessing, should Alzheimer's ever strike, it'll be these songs, plus the Gloria Patri and the Presbyterian Doxology (both of which I sang every Sunday for 40 years), that stick with me after I've forgotten a lot of other important things. And I'm sure my folks weren't thinking about Alzheimer's when they did it, but they've made sure I won't forget my faith.

So what prayers are you teaching your kids? Do you sing together? Sing at mass? These are all great ways of helping remember exactly what it is that we all believe.

All together now, Psalm 91: "And he will raise you up on eagle's wings, bear you on the breath of dawn..."