NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- The long dying of Louise Will ended here recently. It was time. At 98, her body was exhausted by disease and strokes. Dementia, that stealthy thief of identity, had bleached her vibrant self almost to indistinctness, like a photograph long exposed to sunlight.
It is said that God gave us memory so we could have roses in winter. Dementia is an ever-deepening advance of wintery whiteness, a protracted paring away of personality. It inflicts on victims the terror of attenuated personhood, challenging philosophic and theological attempts to make death a clean, intelligible and bearable demarcation.
Is death the soul taking flight after the body has failed? That sequence -- the physical extinguished, the spiritual not -- serves our notion of human dignity. However, mental disintegration mocks that comforting schema by taking the spirit first.
In the very elderly the mind can come and go, a wanderer in time, and a disintegrating personality can acquire angers and jagged edges that are, perhaps, protests against a growing lightness of being. No one has come back from deep in that foreign country to report on life there. However, it must be unbearably frightening to feel one's self become light as a feather, with inner gales rising.
Dementia slowly loosens the sufferer's grip on those unique tokens of humanity, words. An early sign is a forgetfulness that results in repetitiveness, and fixation on the distant past.
For a while, one of Louise's insistently recurring memories was of spring 1918, a war year, and eastbound troop trains passing through Greenville, Pa. When the trains stopped, residents offered candy and magazines to the soldiers -- but not to black units. That infuriated Louise's father, whose fury was a fine memory for Louise to have among those of a father who died at age 44.
To the end, even when virtually without speech, Louise could recognize her children, could enjoy music and being read to from love letters written 75 years ago by Fred, her future husband. She could even laugh, in spite of the tormenting chasm between her remaining cognition and the prison of her vanished ability to articulate.
In 1951, in Champaign, Ill., for her 10-year-old son, she made a mother's sacrifice: She became a White Sox fan so she could converse with the argumentative Cubs fan who each evening dried the dishes as she washed. Even after much of her stock of memories had been depleted, she dimly knew that the name Nellie Fox (a second baseman) once meant something playful.