By Thomas Debaggio Touchstone, 2002 Review by Kevin Purday on Jul 6th 2002
books impart information, some give advice, some entertain, while some books
open a window onto the innermost thoughts and deepest feelings of a fellow
human being. This book most
definitely falls into that last category.
Thomas DeBaggios paternal grandfather was born in
Friuli, Italy, and emigrated as a boy together with his father to America.
Along the way his name was Americanized from Di Biasio to DeBaggio. We pick up
the story of both sets of grandparents in fragments throughout the book. The
fragmentation is part of the story that the book sets out to tell because in
1999, at the age of fifty-seven, Thomas DeBaggio was diagnosed as having
Alzheimers. He had been a professional herb-grower for twenty-four years and
was looking forward to the autumn of his life when he realized that his memory
was faltering. He could no longer recall the names of herbs he used to know
well. Nor could he remember the names of friends he had not seen for a while.
He mentioned the problem to his doctor who referred him to a specialist. He
underwent a full neuropsychological evaluation. At his next visit to the
specialist he was told bluntly, You have Alzheimers.
Picture yourself in his place fit and externally very
healthy after a lifetime of having nothing worse than the odd cold being told
out of the blue that you have Alzheimers. I am exactly the same age now as
Thomas DeBaggio was at the time of the diagnosis and my sympathy for him was
compounded with fear for myself.
Thomas DeBaggios story is of how he coped with this
catastrophic news. Should he join a programme testing Alzheimer drugs? No. He had always
wanted to be a writer and, in addition to being a journalist for many years,
had in fact written three books about herbs. Now he had, as he puts it, not a
hell of a story but a story of hell to tell.
The book has three
themes. The first is what he calls his Baby Book. This is made up of extracts
from his long-term memory going back to his earliest childhood days and
continuing into his thirties. These appear in short bursts rather like
flashbacks. They represent those patches of sunlight that for all of us
illuminate parts of our early years. For Thomas DeBaggio these rays of light
are particularly important because he knows that his memory is what, in a very
real sense, holds him together and he delights in using his long-term memory
while he can. We learn about both sets of grandparents, his lawyer father and
teacher mother, his schooldays, his forays onto the dance floor with a red-hot
dusky beauty, his job as a newspaper boy, his dropping out of college, meeting
the woman who was to become his wife, the birth of their son and his years as a
reporter on various newspapers. The Baby Book more or less ends as he leaves
journalism to take up herb-growing.
The second theme is
more contemporary but still fragmentary it is the story of the diagnosis of
Alzheimers, how he coped with it, how he decided to tell all his friends and
customers, the sympathy and attempts at good advice he received, his problems
with the drugs regime and, most importantly for us the readers, how he
personally coped with the memory lapses and the subsequent speech problems and
the humiliation they entailed. These fragments are poignant and full of
humility. He mentions the terrible diarrhoea that was an unwanted side-effect
of the drugs; there is an account of how he accidentally overdosed and how his
wife cared for him; there is a mini story of how he walked to a local shop and
then failed to work out how a photocopier worked; and there are many snippets
about losing and finding things as well as words. In all of this he is deeply
aware of the enormous burden of care that he has unwittingly placed upon his
The third theme is made
up of extracts from recent Alzheimers research explaining the causes of the
disease insofar as we know them, describing the course which the disease takes
and bringing us up to date with current findings. This theme is useful for our
understanding but its impact is limited by comparison with the emotional force
of the other two themes.
All three themes are
deliberately intercut or multilayered as Thomas DeBaggio puts it. The effect
is at first rather off-putting but it is not just an artifice but an attempt to
show how Alzheimers digs holes in the memory and produces a patchy network of
light and dark and of long-term and more immediate memories.
This is a deeply moving
book. It is also, I warn you, a very disturbing one. Alzheimers can strike
some people in their thirties or forties. For all of us it is a real
possibility and, as the average age of death increases, a growing possibility.
It is a very humbling experience to read a first-hand account from someone
undergoing the ordeal of knowing that Alzheimers is the beginning of the end.
This book, like the rosemary he used to grow, is for remembrance.
Kevin M. Purday is the head of an
international school in Jordan, and is currently a distance learning student on
the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health course in the Philosophy Dept. at
the University of Warwick.