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It's All In How You Hold It

Two years ago, I had a conversation with my friend, Jay, that changed my life. Here is some of what we talked about.

I asked him, What did it feel like to hear those three words—You Have Alzheimer’s?

“We (he and his wife) never really did have a moment of denial. I’d accepted the Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis when the doctor put me on Aricept. That was the time of shock and relief. Finally, we have an answer. We never thought of Alzheimer’s, but it was great to know that it’s not something mysterious anymore. It’s just this thing that five million other Americans have.”

When Jay and his wife left his doctor’s office, they went straight to a bookstore to learn more about Alzheimer’s Disease. They bought The Forgetting (Shenk), Alzheimer’s Early Stages (Kuhn), and Alzheimer’s for Dummies. They learned about the symptoms and stages, living with the disease, and planning for the future. He took the medications prescribed by his physician. But something in Jay urged him to learn and do more.

Armed with a diagnosis, they attended to a mind-body retreat, where Jay began to discover new parts of himself, unused by Jay the architect, undamaged by Jay the man with Alzheimer’s.

He ate vegan meals rich in anti-oxidants and learned about natural healing. He began exercising.

“Every morning at the retreat, we did exercises focused on strength and balance and getting the lymph system moving. Aerobic exercise is the number one thing you can do for your health, your brain, and the growth of your brain.”

He started reading more, but not about Alzheimer’s Disease. He tells me that I absolutely have to read Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Choprah, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Stephen Levine, Gary Zukav.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time and attention on books about consciousness and healing. This is the real deal about who we really are, the stuff they never taught you in school. I’m taking it all in as fast as I can without getting in a hurry and falling over myself.”

Jay is looking at me now, his eyes alive and bright, his voice louder and sure of itself. He’s excited about all this, and his mood infects me easily. I perk up.

Look at all you’re discovering.

“I’ve taken my life back. I’m happy. I’ve never been happier. I’ve been spending a lot of time on self-awareness, discovery, and actualization through meditation. I never meditated before this disease. I’m starting to get it down. In the last year, I’ve been actively involved in an intensive meditation group that meets weekly, and the miracles that have been happening since I’ve started doing it have been just amazing.”

I’m nothing short of awed by Jay’s transformation. Here’s a man who has been diagnosed with a disease synonymous with death, but the man before me, in this present moment, is not a dying man.

“My main avocation has always been music. I’m in a folk string group, and I’d always played the banjo and guitar. Recently, my friends in the group encouraged me to try mandolin, so for a few years now I’m becoming a serious mandolin player.”

Wow, Jay, that’s so impressive. You realize that you have a disease that makes it difficult to learn new tasks.

“Yes, but that’s exactly what you need to do! It’s like doing my Sudoko every morning. Learning a new song, a new skill, challenging the grey matter and forging new pathways. And music also gives me a connection to the people I play with. My wife and I have been in a community chorus for years. It’s a great outlet for self-expression and creativity..”

Jay, what you’re doing is incredible. You know, most people can’t imagine you. When most people think of Alzheimer’s, they see end stage. They skip immediately from diagnosis to deathbed.

“For the first time in my life, I’ve got nothing to lose. It’s liberating. It’s real clear to me. Our priority is living the good years we have left. We know the shape of the end of this thing, but we still have a lot of living to do. Right after diagnosis, I began attending a guitar/mandolin camp, including a couples weekend with my wife, and I’ve already signed us up for next year’s mandolin camp and couples’ weekend. And I bought a new car, even though I may not be able to drive much longer.

I’ve come to see the importance of acceptance and accommodation—accepting the diagnosis and all its implications, and learning to adjust and accommodate to the limitations it imposes—and then refocusing and reprioritizing my life to my newly rediscovered core values. Anyone can discover their own. Mine are family, creativity, life-long learning, service to community.”

A man with a video camera is hovering a few feet away. I look down at my watch. My time with Jay is about up. He has an interview with some folks from HBO next. I wish we had more time together. I’m learning, inspired. I like him. He knows who he is and what he’s about. It’s magnetic. I want to be in the presence of his peace and excitement for life. I don’t know many people in this world who have what Jay has found with Alzheimer’s.

“A brilliant young professor left me, over 50 years ago, with ‘it’s all in how you hold it.’ For me, after all of this, it all boils down to living my life like there’s no tomorrow, while conducting myself and treating my body-mind-spirit in such as way as to maximize the number of tomorrows that I’ll have available.”

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