It was September of 2010 and we were walking along the long stretch of beach in Mission Bay, near San Diego CA. He described to me how he and his wife had gone to see a Doctor as he was starting to forget things. He was 73, so I am thinking, “Who doesn’t forget things as he or she gets older”?
Only this was different. He was very scared.
He could not pass certain memory tests. You know, the ones where they give you a list of 10 animals, make you repeat them one at a time, then ask you to now name as many as you can remember? Lists like that. Word lists and number lists. And he was a pretty bright guy. He was a writer and a teacher, a technology geek, and a deep thinker, all of his life. Something was changing though.
We walked a long way that day. Miles on that beach. We laughed and cried, got angry and tender. We prayed, and wondered why. In modern day terms we were BFF’s. Thick as thieves. We had been though 35 years of life together – leaning on one another during good and bad.
And that day on the beach, we had a beer together as the sun was setting, looking for that “Green Flash” moment as the Sun sets down on the horizon. Not this time though. No green flash. Not ever again. We had no idea what was really ahead.
What does it mean to start down the road of early onset Alzheimer’s? It is a road that once entered; you cannot choose a different path. And the road takes you to places your friends and your family will not be allowed to go. You will not know if they are there or not. You will not be able to respond the way you want. You and they will learn to let go. And, it will be painful.
Moving through the Stages of Alzheimer’s has a different rate of speed for different people. In his case, it was a five-year journey for my friend. There was plenty of time for some great and sweet memories before it was too late, but gradually his movements become more and more restricted. His ability to communicate and to respond became gradually limited. It sneaks up on you, one day at a time and then it finally ends.
In his case, that was January 13th, 2016. We just finished with 2 days of celebrating his life. More than 600 people showed up, and I am sure there would have been so many more had those at the national level not been trapped by the crazy distance caused by mid-winter storms. Chicago can be a tough place to get to sometimes.
He and his wife were local heroes in the community. Long time members in faith and in friends across so many professions and personal experiences. At the celebration of his life, USC Theologian Dallas Willard (2013) was quoted:
A person is essentially a collection of conscious experiences. Far more than just bodies or just appetites, we are our experiences. That is why we treasure the good ones.
He was my treasure; my collection of experiences with him will forever be part of the good ones I get in this life. And, my experiences with him have shaped me into the hope of being a better teacher and leader for others tomorrow.
If you have read this blog entry this far, you might wonder why would I write about this experience in my professional blog for educators? I suppose because I had so much respect for him as a math teacher and leader. I just felt the need to place some thoughts together. I suppose it is cathartic for me as well, as I process losing a best friend. Something that is just so very human.
But what is in it for you? The reader? Well, I suppose that you too, have a BFF. Maybe more than one. And whether it is this year or 20 years from now, you too will go through the stages of losing that BFF, and just maybe Dallas Willards’ words will lift you up. Or just maybe, those words will remind you today – and every day - to treasure those good experiences with that BFF of yours.
Today, in the middle of the winter in so many parts of our country, I just simply wanted to let the world know, that Jerry Joe Cummins - mathematics educator extraordinaire – was one of those really really really good ones. I treasure every moment I was given to share my life with him as I know so do hundreds of others.
I hope the same for you with your family, friends and colleagues as well.
Treasure those good experiences – even in the middle of a crazy week this week.