Over the years I am sure most of my friends have heard me mention Bob Gettings (a pseudonym). I used to work with him, before he, five years older than I, retired over ten years ago.
Bob was the kind of man, one very much like my father, who could do anything, from repairing a blown cylinder in an automobile engine to installing a ceiling fan, from complicated carpenter work to extensive landscaping. If something possessed moving parts Bob understood how it worked and could repair it when it malfunctioned. He was not a bookish man (he, in charge of maintenance at an institution, once sent out a memo complaining about “wreckless” driving in the parking lot), but on practical matters, the solid things of this world, the corporeal, Bob could disassemble them and then put them back together. He had the kind of intelligence I admire; he was the epitome of competence. There just didn’t seem anything he couldn’t do. He seemed to know always where the fish were biting. I am no angler, not at all, but Bob and his pals knew every nook and cranny of the river, the tannin-stained ebony waters of which run nearby, the dark waters where the red breasts and bream thrive. For some reason his garden always grew the biggest tomatoes and the best-tasting cucumbers.
The last time I saw Bob was about eighteen months ago. My wife and I had new carpet laid in the upstairs bedroom. It looked great; the only problem was that the bedroom door wouldn’t close, the new carpet effectively having raised the level of the floor. I called Bob, asked him for a solution and his help. He came around to the house, solved the problem easily. He and I removed the door (even a ham-fisted klutz like me can do something this simple), took it outside where Bob laid it upon two sawhorses. Having already measured how much the door needed to be trimmed, he marked the bottom of the door with a pencil and then with an electric saw proceeded to cut off about an inch or so of the door. We took the door back upstairs, fitted it into its hinges, and, eureka!, we had a door that opened and closed smoothly. The entire job took less than ten minutes.
I lost track of Bob after that. I lost a piece of paper with all his and his wife’s phone numbers, both the house phone number and the numbers of their cell phones. Bob’s not the kind of man to make a casual call; he was not going to call me. Bob does not own a computer, finds e-mail as alien as a kid would find an old Underwood typewriter. All their numbers are unlisted. Besides, I knew Bob and his wife were trying to sell their house. I thought perhaps they had sold it and perhaps moved, to another location here in the city or to a new city.
A few weeks ago, though, on my way home from a doctor’s appointment, I, for the first time in a long, long time, found myself in Bob’s general neighborhood. I thought, since it was not all that much out of the way, I’d drive by his home. I saw his white truck parked in the driveway and an old man whom Bob had befriended some years ago doing some gardening work in the front yard. I thought I’d stop, see whether Bob was home. Pulling into the driveway and getting out of my truck, I asked the old man whether Bob was home. The old man told he told he was. “Just go knock on the back door,” he told me.
I did. Dogs barked. I called, “Bob, are you in there?” I heard a voice shush the dogs, two poodles eyeing and barking at me through the screen door. The main door was open. Thinking the voice Bob’s, I simply pulled open the screen door and stepped into the house. I saw Bob standing in the middle of his den. He stood, blankly staring at me, though at the time I thought nothing of it, and I, in loud, boisterous bonhomie, said “How you been doin’, buddy?”
I then noticed that Bob looked different, as if puzzled or confused. The first thing he said to me was “they think I’ve got dementia. They won’t let me drive anymore.” I stood there, you can imagine, stupefied. I hadn’t gotten the hello I expected, the “how you doin’ yourself?” the big smile, an indication of his genuine delight at seeing me. When I asked what in God’s name was going on, Bob said about three or four months ago he woke up one morning and could not remember anything.
“You couldn’t remember anything?” I asked. Surely, I thought, he must be wrong or at the least wildly exaggerating.
“I couldn’t figure out where I was, what I was supposed to do, didn’t know whether I was to get out of bed or not,” he said.
We talked, and it didn’t take me long to discern that Bob’s memory was indeed failing, failing badly. He told me that just before I had arrived, the old man couldn’t start the lawnmower and that he, Bob, knew exactly what the problem was but that when he got to the lawnmower he found he had forgotten what he needed to do to make the machine fire up. He seemed both disgusted at himself and, at the same time, terribly afraid. A great deal of his conversation, as he attempted to explain to me what was going on with him, what doctors he had seen, where, what they had said, what medication he was taking, had no thread that I could follow. He said at one point, when his failed memory was painfully obvious even to him, “It looks like I’m losing my mind.”
I finally asked him, “Bob, do the doctors think you have something like Alzheimer’s?” He confirmed that, yes, they do. I was finally able to gather from his wandering talk that this diagnosis was the result of a battery of tests lasting four hours. Bob took these tests at a major university’s medical center. Bob failed the tests, most of which test memory retention. By this point I didn’t need test results to know that Bob was severely afflicted with major memory loss, living in a murky world of confusion and fear. I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic when I say it is an awful thing to behold a person on the cusp of mental ruin. Seen from a distance such a catastrophe prompts philosophical talk, Beckerian queries into what is the definition of “character” and what happens to the “I” when the brain is no longer aware of any “I”? Seen up close, however, this inexorable ruin ravaging its devastating and gluttonous way through a human mind fills us with both terror and compassion.
This man who was once so confident, so self-assured, a man with a firm voice and a steady hand, had become timid, his eyes full of fear, his voice full of confusion and uncertainty. It was hard to bear. I could clearly see that Bob was doing his best to persuade me (or himself, or both of us) that he was OK, but he’s not OK. When I told him I wanted to write down his phone number, he, pointing to a table, indicated a pencil and a pad lying there. When I asked him for his home phone number, he didn’t, at first, remember it. He gave me a number. Then he said, “No, that’s not right.” He told me two or three numbers. After a while, he thought he’d given me the correct number. I don’t know whether he did or not.
I had to go home, take my dog to the park for his walk. I said good-bye to Bob, who, trying to smile, said, “Well, I’ve had a great life. I can’t complain. I will just take one day at a time.”
Then he seemed to remember that he might have prostate cancer. He quit smiling, told me that he was scheduled to have a biopsy (he couldn’t find the word “biopsy,” so I provided it) of his prostate in a few days. I didn’t pursue this topic, and he seemed to quickly forget it as he talked to the dogs, told them to “hush.” Once again I said good-bye, and I left.
I’d subsequently find out that Bob does indeed have prostate cancer, a virulent, aggressive kind. The doctors, fearing the cancer has metastasized into his bones, have scheduled an MRI to try to find out the extent of the malignancy.
A few days later Bob’s wife, having found out about my visit to see Bob, called me. She told me that Bob had been officially diagnosed with dementia, the doctor telling her, “You are in for some hard times.” His wife told me that the doctor told her that dementia works its woe faster than does Alzheimer’s.
Further testing on Bob’s prostate, she added, revealed that the cancer had spread. The gland will have to be removed and after this Bob will have either chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Perhaps both. I don’t know. I don’t know how rapidly dementia will usurp most of Bob’s mind. His wife told me that Bob seems only vaguely aware he has a dangerous case of prostate cancer.
She said, “What am I going to do?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”