This past week has been very rough for me, but since you are my friends, I wanted to share it with you. Very few of you know me personally, and since I don’t make it a habit to go spouting off personal details every chance I get, many of you don’t know about my father. I don’t talk about him much because, frankly, there isn’t much to tell. We never had a great relationship, at least not since I was a child, so we were never very close. He left me live with him for a short time as an adult (I’m not proud of needing the help), but it didn’t end well. So I kept my distance, leaving my sister to deal with him. He started having health problems a little over a decade ago. He never lived a healthy lifestyle; he was a weekend alcoholic (not to lessen his alcoholism, but he only drank on the weekends – so it’s more an identifier than an excuse), and a chain smoker. He had to quit drinking because drunk driving laws were getting harsher. He had to quit smoking, but he replaced tobacco with caffeine. So the congestive cardiopulmonary failure wasn’t a surprise.
The dementia was.
Now I will tell this part of the story with a bit of a caveat; Anne, my sister, has dealt with much more of this than I have, and she knows this tale far more intimately. I’m telling much of this second hand. It started small, like these things always do. We didn’t realize anything was the matter with my father until he kept being admitted into the hospital for high blood sugar and congestive heart failure – his sugar was off the charts and his Diabetes was 100% preventable. My sister and I dug into his cabinets and discovered that he was eating the worst sort of food imaginable and wasn’t taking his medicine. At first, we just thought it was because he didn’t have money (another issue entirely), but he was forgetting to take it. The bottles were mostly full and some of them expired. Then he started to tell the nursing staff that he was an engineer at Wright-Pat (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base – it’s in Fairborn, the town he lived in). My father never went to college, and certainly wasn’t an engineer. And he hadn’t been on the base since my Grandfather worked there in the 60′s and 70′s. He’d always been a fantastic liar, but he would never have done something like this unless he was no longer able to tell the lies from the truth. Then on one visit, he told my sister that the guy was really nice (meaning his roommate in the hospital), but that he wasn’t going to keep letting dad live in his garage forever. He started babbling incoherently, having trouble completing thoughts. He wouldn’t call me by my name, though he knew I was his son. After he had a small stroke (and being told that he’s probably had dozens of TIA’s – Transient Ischemic Attacks or mini-strokes), we tired to put him in a care facility. In the end, my sister decided that she would care for him at home, even though I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t have done the same for her. She’s a saint for doing this, considering the shit he’s put her through over the years. Quite honestly, I would have left him in the home, but I’m really not that great of a son.
Well, in any event, it’s coming to an end. He won’t participate in physical therapy anymore, and he won’t acknowledge my sister, so she needs to move him into the care facility permanently. He doesn’t have Alzheimer’s Disease, he has Dementia, brought on by the combination of poor lifestyle and the cumulative damage of all the TIA’s. My father is 67, hardly an age we heavily associate with geriatric disease. Most people his age are just starting to retire and complain about their arthritis. He can’t remember what arthritis is.
All of this got me thinking. I’ve talked about Medicine as a general topic in the past, but I’ve never really been as personally connected to one of my topics as I am this one (though “Soldiers” hit a little closer to home than most). The idea of escaping death is as old as humanity itself. The paragons of our collective consciousness are either immortal or have cheated death (by any number of means). Our religious icons are immortal, our superheroes rise from the dead (and not in the bad way) and the heroes in our stories seem to live forever. Seriously, did it ever cross your mind that Luke might actually die on the Death Star II? Of course not. Did we really believe that Superman was really dead? Not for a second. The final Act in Serenity? We all knew Mal would beat the bad guy, and that when the blast doors opened, River would still be standing. I suppose that’s why they never really tackled the idea of aging, and the diseases of aging.
Even in Star Trek, they hadn’t solved the problem of aging, though they often skirted the subject. The episodes “Return to Tomorrow” and “The Schizoid Man” featured the idea of immortality by preserving our brain wave patterns (and subsequently uploading them into another vessel) and more than once the crews of the various versions of the Enterprise were faced with the prospect of rapid uncontrolled aging. In the Star Trek episode, “The Deadly Years”, McCoy comments that Kirk is showing signs of aging that included Rheumatism, implying that in the 23rd Century, we haven’t conquered this painful dilemma, even though we can travel faster than the speed of light. Another anomaly is that while they previously had the technology to preserve people (presented both in the OS and in TNG), it seems to have been something they no longer had a need or desire for. To the other extreme, in Logan’s Run, people were killed off before they had a chance to get old and experience any of the inconveniences of old age. A similar idea was presented in the 2011 Justin Timberlake vehicle In Time, in which people stop aging at 25, but are genetically engineered to only live one more year beyond that. Living longer means that you have to purchase time, so only the rich have long lives, and some are essentially immortal (because you have more time to make more money to buy more time to make more money to buy more time… you get the picture).
Our Science Fiction is also filled with the idea of being frozen (either cryogenically or accidentally). One of the more well-known instances of living beyond one’s time is that of Buck Rogers, who was frozen in space (or trapped in a radioactive cave, depending on which story you read) for nearly 500 years. Perhaps one of the most famous villains in all Science Fiction, Khan Noonien Singh, was also a man displaced in time. In the original Star Trek episode, “Space Seed”, Khan and his merry band of genetic supermen were found, still preserved, on a pre-warp “sleeper ship”. They were put to sleep while the ship traversed the long distances of space travel during a time that such travels would have taken a lifetime (the S.S. Botany Bay should have left Earth in 1996). The technology doesn’t become any more advanced in the 21st century because the Enterprise-D encounters another sleeper ship (this one for people on death’s door) and of the 12 original passengers, only 3 survive (in contrast to the 72 of 84 from the Botany Bay – presumably because the world’s smartest people were on board and knew how to make it work better before they launched). Those survivors were cured of their previously incurable ailments (an aneurism, heart disease and cirrhosis). I would like to think that something like Alzheimer’s would be on that list, but in the very final episode of TNG, Picard’s time jumping as seen to be just his old mind playing tricks on him, implying that Dementia is still something humankind can’t solve.
I know that we live a lot longer than we used to (in the First World), and that we’ve made a lot of advances in medicine in the last 100 years. But more often than not, we allow out superstitions and worse, our greed, get in the way of real progress. Curing an illness isn’t as profitable as profitable as treating it. And despite what Futurama would have us believe, freezing people isn’t a particularly practical solution in the long term. In a spritual sense, why would you try to prolong life when the whole goal is immortality in the next life? It’s difficult to watch Dementia ravage the once vibrant and intelligent mind of my father knowing that there could be a solution hiding somewhere in Science Fiction that we just haven’t developed yet.
Unless I can find a transporter buffer to keep him in for the next few decades, well… I’ll be over here, missing a man who’s still with me, but isn’t really there.