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Commentary: A life’s purpose never past its prime

We like to tell the story of compensation brought by the latter phases of the cycle of life: with loss of strength will come security; with diminution of the sharpness of the young mind will come wisdom that only experience can beget.

Perhaps a more subtle form of compensation comes from the vicissitudes of day-to-day living and our salubrious capacity to forget the details of our personal histories. I am never going to run as well now as I could in my prime. But I run well enough to be far more likely to notice how well I did today compared to yesterday than to 30 years ago; the changes from those ancient times are delightfully easy to push out of the self-inventory in which my consciousness — probably diminishing — records items of note.

Sometimes, though, superannuation happens not with a whimper but a bang. There is a catastrophic diagnosis: one’s mind and body will metamorphose with rapid and palpable certainty into something less.

In 2014, Robin Williams, one of my favorite performers, took his life because of such a diagnosis. His energy, his genius for improvisation, his mastery of roles in turn hilarious and poignant — these traits made Robin Williams incomparable. The impact of that message on a genius like Williams is quite literally inconceivable.

Still, I watched someone very close to me – my father – go through every step of what Williams would have endured, had he chosen to live — or, if you will, to die — suffering from Parkinson’s disease with Lewy Body dementia. What did he feel, knowing what was to come? It cannot have been too different from what Williams experienced.

I remember seeing a newspaper article he’d clearly read weeks after his diagnosis announcing nicotine showed promise in alleviating symptoms of dementia. The next day, dad began smoking cigars — a wholly new vice.

In countless other small-but-cumulatively-convincing ways, dad revealed his awareness of the lessening of his own level of awareness. I can imagine no more invidious moment than the one in which I would look at myself in the mirror and wonder what I would look like to the self that would take my place hereafter.

Lewy Body dementia can be jagged and cruel. Sufferers have relatively good days during which the mind that was seems for a moment to haul itself above the Lethean waters in which the mind that is maintains its slow descent into what is a second childhood. The mind that was should never be allowed to grasp what it has become most of the time. The self-awareness of what seems a diminishing mind can be awful; how can someone be aware that awareness is dying and continue to live with selflessness, warmth and love?

At this point, Robin Williams chose to quit. My father opted to endure; he had more to give. From beginning to end, no pain or fear of his outshone the friendship, generosity and gladness he gave to colleagues and caretakers.

It takes one type of character to say to the face in the mirror: “Well, my personal best has come and gone, so now it is time to quit.” That is to say one’s sense of purpose is a purely personal accomplishment meant perhaps to challenge or awe others, not to nurture them.

To an observer all caught up with concepts of “selfhood,” everything about my father’s life conspired to say, toward the end, “This is not worth it, after all.” What it took for him to go on living — to triumph over the changes a normal person would say were diminishing him – represents a very different type of character.

My father’s sense of purpose came not from what he was but from what he had to give. As it happens, that purpose never deserted him.

Life is not diminished when through terrible loss generosity and love persevere. Such a life enables not the denial or perversion of reality but its creation: when one chooses a reality in which other people’s faces matter more than the one in the mirror, selfhood cannot be diminished.

Newman teaches English at Western Texas College.

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