I recently took a good, hard look at myself in the mirror. My eyelids are beginning to sag over my blue eyes. My ruddy sun-damaged skin is going slack around my ears.
“Hi Dad,” I said to my 49-year-old reflection. “I’d recognize you anywhere.”
Long before my father died of complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease, people frequently remarked on our similar appearance. I usually fought back against the allegation.
“How can a little girl look exactly like a grown man?” I’d say with my hands on my slender hips—unconsciously imitating my father’s own determined stance.
But our physical resemblance and character traits were undeniable: long-armed, big-lipped, blue-eyed, loose-jointed, freckle-skinned Bercaws. Except for our male and female chromosomes, nearly everything about us was a perfect match.
Yet I always felt like my own person. Even at a young age, I preferred stories to science. I wanted to write books; he wanted to cure diseases.
We weren’t exactly the same.
My dad, Dr. Beauregard Lee Bercaw, decided to become a neurologist after watching his own father succumb to Alzheimer’s. My dad feared that because he looked just like his dad, the disease would come for him too.
So great was his worry that Dr. Bercaw kept grandfather’s autopsied brain in a jar at the center of his office desk. Consequently, grandpa’s grey matter and my dad’s great dread became the center of my childhood universe.
As my father approached middle age he began to experiment on himself, with diet supplements. By age 60 he was taking 78 tablets a day. He tracked down anything that offered the possibility of saving brain cells and killing free radicals. This was in 1999, long before herbal supplements were household words.
After retiring from his neurology practice, Dr. Bercaw turned his full attention to math puzzles. Even when I was visiting, he’d sit silently on his leather recliner with a calculator to verify the accuracy of computations he did by memory. I always wished that he would talk to me.
Once, dad looked up from his Sudoku game and said, “Promise that you’ll put a gun to my head if I turn out like my father.”
I didn’t kill my dad. Instead, I watched helplessly as he declined into the disease he’d heard coming like a train. Dr. Bercaw spent the last 18 months of his life in a memory care facility and died on April 2, 2012, a month before his 74th birthday—the same age at which his own father passed away.
I’ve been seeing a lot of my dad again lately. And not just in the mirror. He comes to mind whenever a name escapes me. I wonder what I might find if I could look behind my face into my brain. Proof I am the next Bercaw up to bat for Alzheimer’s disease?
Still, I can choose not to be like my father. I may have inherited his genes, but I can decide not to share his obsession. I don’t want to spend the second half of my time on Earth worrying about whether or not I’m going to get Alzheimer’s disease.
I’d rather see every inch of the Earth instead. I want to show my son what’s worth living for—and the answer isn’t math. Life is measured in love, not in brain mass. The only thing in this world that’s worth remembering: It’s the heart that belongs in a jar.
By Nancy Bercaw | @nancybercaw