10/17/2012 01:10 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

Brilliant Scholar Didn't Regret Losing His Mind

Ed had been a true Renaissance man, as were many Europeans of his generation, but he stood out among them because his memory was phenomenal. It was his most distinguishing feature. He remembered everything he read, heard or saw. It was that simple. We often refer to such people as "walking encyclopedias," but Ed was far more. Ed was a walking library.

Many times when my friends and I had academic discussions we'd get stumped by some question or other. I'd always say, "Let's call Ed. He'll know." And he did. Every time.

I was ever so proud that my Ed could delve into that stunning memory and within seconds retrieve the answers to our ridiculously obscure questions. He would eagerly shout them out as though on a TV game show, where the first contestant to answer correctly won.

Ed was cosmopolitan, too. He knew so many languages. In addition to his native Romanian, he spoke English, French and German fluently, and he read Italian, Spanish, Latin and Russian. Most highly educated people know multiple languages, of course, and Ed was no exception.

What was nearly unbelievable, however, was that even when he developed dementia he could still speak Romanian, English, French and German. He couldn't remember if he had had lunch, didn't always know if it was day or night, couldn't tie his shoes, couldn't talk on the phone. But he could easily converse in those languages.

Ed had received a classic European education in Bucharest and subsequently earned a law degree there. He became a tenacious defense attorney, racking up an astounding number of acquittals for his clients.

Then he changed his professional focus to literature and philosophy, and studied further in France and the United States. He had read nearly all 1,200 books in his personal library -- "plus," as he once said to a friend admiring his collection, "a few more." The "few more" were, in fact, "hunnerds," if not "tousands" more.

His 1973 doctorate from the University of Cincinnati was in Romance Languages and Literature, which required a thorough knowledge not only of French literature, but also comparative literature, literary theory, literary criticism and other related areas.

It seemed that when I arrived to visit he was always hunched over his kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and deeply immersed in a thick book in one language or another about those very topics.

His knowledge and scholarly interests didn't stop with literature and philosophy. He was incredibly well versed in many other areas as well, including music, art, architecture, history, and -- most of all -- current world events.

He'd routinely tell me about events -- even those of little or no importance -- that had happened that morning in some tiny country I couldn't even find on a map.

Though Ed's unshakable memory and vast fund of knowledge were amazing, his brain was far more than a mere repository for facts and figures. He could do things with the knowledge he possessed.

He could analyze complex philosophical issues and discern subtle differences between similar works of art. He could debate controversial literary theories and distinguish between the core of an issue and the fluff. He could synthesize voluminous amounts of information and get to the bottom of it, distilling it to what was truly significant.

But all that would fade into darkness when Alzheimer's overtook him. Fortunately, he didn't suffer because he never realized he'd lost anything. If anything, Alzheimer's actually made him happier.

When I arrived to visit him at the nursing home one day, he was in the TV room sitting on a folding chair playing balloon volleyball with Fred and two female residents I didn't know.
I never thought I'd see the day when Dr. Edward Theodoru would participate in any kind of sport, nor would anyone else who ever knew him.

Not wanting to disrupt Ed's activity, I sat on the floor beside him to watch. He was really quite good. Of the four residents playing, he was the most coordinated and most enthusiastic.
Joan, one of the home's precious aides, was directing the game. Every time the big yellow balloon went flying toward Ed, he got a determined look on his face, joined his hands together and stretched out his arms. When the balloon got within striking range he hit it, or "beat it," as he said, sending it flying across the room.

Twice he hit it so hard it hurtled into the hallway.

"Good job, Ed!" Joan shouted, dashing out to get the balloon. "Extra points for you!"

"Oh. Marvelous!" he said. "Throw it here and I'll beat it again."

My heart ached seeing Ed so elated, sitting in a nursing home batting around a balloon. Just a year before he would have spit on anyone who dared suggest he engage in that type of game -- or any game, for that matter.

But I realized that, generally speaking, he was a lot happier than I'd seen him in years. That thought brought me comfort as he hit the balloon into the hall again, another big smile on his face.

For more about Ed read my book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy, and visit my website, which has a wealth of information for Alzheimer's caregivers. A slightly different version of this post was published on the Alzheimer's Reading Room.