A sea of late-spring dandelions outside my barn is leaning toward Cape Cod Bay in a stiff wind, a wave of yellow. I am drawn to the cluster. The dandelion -- a French derivative for "dent de lion," the tooth of a lion, with its sharp yellow leaves and believed to date back 30 million years -- is born as a flower, becomes a weed, and dies slowly from the head down. Then its white, fluffy seeds, gentle blowballs, genetically identical to the parent plant, float away to pollinate the world.
And so it is with Alzheimer's, the decay of a flowering brain, pollinating the world, and in cases like mine, genetically identical to the parent plant. I am anxious now every time I cut the lawn, trimming the lithe stalks of dandelions turned weed.
"What is a weed?" Ralph Waldo Emerson pondered in his essay "Fortune of the Republic." "A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." Perhaps Emerson, who succumbed to Alzheimer's, was contemplating the dandelion -- a free spirit of a plant, a symbol of courage and hope, with relevance in medicine, legend, and in Christianity. In medieval times, the dandelion, a bitter herb, was a symbol for the crucifixion of Christ.
The virtue of Alzheimer's today is a hope for redemption at a darkest time. It is my hope, and the hope of millions worldwide afflicted with Alzheimer's, along with their selfless caregivers, that this demon of a disease be stopped before it ravages further. It's been said that in 25 years there will be two kinds of people: those with Alzheimer's and those caring for someone with the disease.
As Baby Boomers cross the divide of the golden years, a thief prowls at will to rob memory, purpose, and sense of self. Only a collective cry from the grassroots, the base of a dandelion, will energize the world and its governments to fund a cure and better care. Our Defense Department will likely spend more in the next two weeks responding to turmoil in Iraq than Capitol Hill will spend in a year for Alzheimer's research.
While our government defends its political and economic interests, who is defending our minds? Like a herd of elephants, our nation in rote lumbers on to the call of the planet's wild.
Elephants are my favorite. They have documented long-term memory, coveted now by Boomers. On a shelf in my office is a small ceramic elephant holding a fishing pole. I purchased it years ago from a gallery in Santa Fe, a cerebral place of awe-inspiring natural light. The ceramic serves to remind me daily of the need for retention and focus in my fight with dementia. The artwork has a place of prominence: It is the elephant in the room.
The word "dementia" is onomatopoeia for many, a word that conjures up a sound--in this case, a howl in the night or biblical images of a demonic maniac, a portrait that no one wants to own. Dementia is derived from the Latin root word for madness, "out of one's mind," an irreversible cognitive dysfunction, a walking nightmare in which you can't escape the bogeyman no matter how fast you run.
Yet you still run. If one quits, you drift back, devoured by the beast. The best of runners in life have partners. My prayer is that we partner up from Capitol Hill to California to make Alzheimer's a fading memory.
Greg O'Brien's latest book, On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer's, will be published this summer. He is also the subject of the short film, "A Place Called Pluto," directed by award-winning filmmaker Steve James, online at livingwithalz.org. In 2009, he was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's. His maternal grandfather and his mother died of the disease. O'Brien carries a marker gene for Alzheimer's.
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