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opinion | Jonathan Kozol

The pursuit of memory

Dr. Harry Kozol at age 48 in 1954.
Dr. Harry Kozol at age 48 in 1954.handout

One evening in 1992, my father, Dr. Harry Kozol, a neuropsychiatrist who had practiced in Boston for almost 60 years, sat me down in his apartment overlooking the Charles River and started to describe a series of attacks that he’d been having, which he called “amnestic spells” and which, he said, were “clearly neurological.” He also spoke of intermittent episodes of interrupted consciousness during which he recognized “a sudden cut-off from my own surroundings,” “a definite blocking of capacity.”

Step by step, drawing upon his clinical experience in diagnosing cell degeneration, he calmly made it clear to me that he was describing in himself premonitory warnings of the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Two years later, the diagnosis was confirmed. By 1996, his condition had significantly worsened. He started getting lost when he went out. He fell in the street one rainy night and displaced his hip. The lapses in his memory rendered him incapable of managing his own affairs. I was forced to put him in a nursing home.

But my father had tremendous social competence. He was a charming raconteur and, even as increasingly large portions of his memory eluded him and his capability for finishing a sentence or a line of thought grew increasingly impaired, his gift of conversational agility and the pleasure that he took in easygoing repartee did not abandon him entirely.

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Our conversations usually took place in the early evenings — he seemed to be the most serene in those quiet hours — and I’d ask him questions to which he often gave me spirited rejoinders. At other times he might try to follow up on something he had talked about a couple of nights before.

The bond between us was so strong that I could often pick up on a word or phrase he used and connect it with a person or experience that had been important in his life. If he made a reference, fleeting as it may have been, to a particle of recollection that surfaced unexpectedly, I learned that if I asked exactly the right question, it would frequently release a more stirring and extended portion of that memory.

If, on the other hand, he told me something that I found perplexing, or which seemed to make no sense, I wouldn’t simply pass it by. I’d try to get him to explain it. “He’s missed you,” he said one evening. Again: “He can’t seem to recall. . . .” Finally, I asked him whether “he’’ was him. He looked as if he was delighted that I tried to stick a pin into the ambiguity of things. “There’s a connection . . . somewhere,” he replied, “if somebody could only figure out what the hell it is!”

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For several years, he also wrote short notes and memos to me, which typically had more cogency and fluency than his spoken words. “No longer than an hour ago,” one of them began, “I received some information that might help improve my situation. But much has taken place beyond my capability to heal. . . . Please provide whatever information on this matter you may have. Remember age and circumstance.”

Another note was written when a nurse inadvertently told him I’d been ill. “Herein: November the sixth. I hope you will be better in the soon. Fate matters. We will keep in close dispatch.”

The time inevitably came when he could no longer write even fragments of a sentence or convey his meanings with any continuity. Even then, however, his personality — his earnestness and sweetness and a seemingly persistent curiosity about his own condition — remained surprisingly intact.

There are those who hold that victims of Alzheimer’s cease to be the persons whom we knew before their sickness — they become “the stranger” — and that it’s naïve to think that any real engagement with the essence of a person in that situation is even faintly possible. This may be true in many cases. But my own experience does not conform to that scenario. I’m glad I kept on talking with my father. I’m glad that he so often answered me. And I’m glad that, when the answers stopped, there’s some reason why he kept on smiling.

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Related:

Derrick Z. Jackson: Alzheimer’s didn’t take family memories

Alex Kingsbury: A palliative for Alzheimer’s-afflicted minds

Book review: ‘The Theft of Memory’ by Jonathan Kozol


Jonathan Kozol’s memoir of his father, “The Theft of Memory,’’ was published this month by Crown.