I don’t remember the name of the book, but I remember the inscription my sister Marie wrote on the inside cover. She loved giving me books and this one was about a new female doctor navigating the treacherous path of her internship, circa 1972. I was 10 years old at the time, and my sister wrote to me, in her then perfect handwriting, “Never give up on you aspirations, you are going to be a great doctor someday.” These days my sister can no longer write her own signature, let alone inscriptions in books. She was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, when her forgetfulness seemed to leap into not being able to buy vegetables at the grocery store. She had always been the artist with her “head in the clouds, “ but things suddenly became very different.
Alzheimer’s disease, still mysterious in its cause, and devastating with its terrible prognosis, causes a sort of death in life. It seems strange to say “my sister was a great artist,” when she is very much alive living a simple, but happy life with her husband. Instead of the disease causing her to become irritable and aggressive, as it does for many, she has become childlike with a pureness of heart, always smiling and ready to share her big, generous laugh. But I miss my sister, the other one who loved to read Winnie the Pooh to me when I was small, who became an accomplished and well-known local artist for her intricate Plexiglas and linoleum prints inspired by African folklore, the one would wanted to explore her creativity in the most elemental ways. She went from knitting, to working a loom, to spinning and dyeing her own yarn. I did not expect her to stop before raising her own sheep. That sister is gone. It seems strange to me not to have said goodbye before she was kidnapped by her disease, but it all happened so fast.
I visit my new sister from time to time, though the 3000 mile distance makes it difficult. She lives in the present, unable to form and hold onto memories, and rapidly losing even older ones. We accept these visits for what they are, a change in scenery for her and a respite for my devoted brother-in-law. I try my best to appreciate the elemental nature of her new self, much like she used to explore in her artwork. But mostly I am left with a renewed empathy—and a profound sympathy–for my patients and their families who are going through the same thing.
Melissa Lim, MD
Redwood City, CA