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Memories to define life

Dr. Beauregard Lee Bercaw with author Nancy Stearns Bercaw   | Photo Credit: 23dmcnancystearns2

Being a daughter and writing a book about her father, so fixated on losing his memory that it drove him to the edge of sanity, is definitely an uphill task. Nancy Stearns Bercaw does precisely that in her book “Brain in a Jar” (Fingerprint) which is about her father Dr. Beauregard Lee Bercaw, an American neurologist, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease (AD), which according to her, “defined him”. He died on April 2, 2012. The poignant book is a heart-warming tribute to a father by a daughter, with the brain occupying centre-stage. The story brings to the fore AD’s effect — which is spread globally and expected to rise in the coming years — on the individual and the family.

In an email interview the author says, “I always knew that one day I would write about my brilliant, challenging, and loving father. When he went into a Memory Care facility, I started ‘Brain in a Jar’ in earnest. It was to keep his memories alive in me.” People loved reading when she blogged about many of her stories. She adds, “When I saw the reaction, I realised I had a book on my hands! And through the book, I could keep him alive forever.”

The story with biographical shades is focussed on the doctor, his family, friends, neighbourhood and surroundings, virtually bringing the author’s life and that of several others into the open. Terming this as “pretty tough”, Nancy comments, “I had to expose family secrets and weaknesses, as well as our triumphs. But I figured that all these things were worth writing and reading. Who wants to hear about perfect people? There are none, anyway.”

Her aim, she says, was “to get people talking about what AD was doing to their own families” since there was so much silence about this illness and people are secretive about it. “I think we need to talk about it more, and to get/give more help to caregivers. We need to show our vulnerability in the face of this memory-stealing disease. Families around the world are living with Alzheimer’s. I figured they might get a laugh and a cry hearing about our family’s foibles.”

Dr. Bercaw’s father died of AD and his eldest brother had some form of dementia, and he suspected that he too would be afflicted with it. He spent hours doing maths in his head and playing Sudoku. In fact the story revolves around his attempt to outsmart and outrun the disease. Describing her father, Nancy says, “He was so volatile, so intimidating and so very smart. Upon deep reflection, I realized he used those traits to cover up his own fears. Especially, his fears about getting Alzheimer’s disease, and human suffering in general.” Interestingly, the doctor kept his father’s brain in a jar at his office and that is how book got its title.

Writing the story helped the narrator to understand and empathise with her father. “He was a tough parent, but he sure did make me a tough woman. When I was young, I was afraid of him.” She adds, “I came to think of my father as a tension of opposites. So sweet and kind, so tough and scary — all at once. Deeply complex and powerful.”

Shocking though it may sound, he made Nancy swear on the Bible that she would shoot him if he wound up with AD. “When he first asked me to kill him if he got AD, I was angry. But I get it now. My father was his brain, and his heart. He could live with either of them being in full working order. He hated the idea of not remembering his skills, his travels, his wife or his children,” explains the author.

Nancy’s father believed that she too might inherit AD. He made her undergo a genetic test for the Alzheimer’s gene and paid for it as her 34th birthday gift. “I think he was sad that he might have passed down the gene for AD to me, as if it were a choice.” The result showed that she carried ApoE 3 which meant that she may or may not get the disease. How does she cope with this? “I decided that I do not want to fret endlessly about whether or not I will get Alzheimer’s disease. Truth is, though, that I probably will. But, I intend to make so many memories in my lifetime that I won’t be able to remember them all anyway.”

Dr. Bercaw comes across as a strict parent and disciplinarian who insisted on a certain regime. “He dared to discipline his kids. He never took the easy way out. His job was to make us smart and ready for the world. I think he was always trying to teach me to be independent, self-sufficient, and brave. He used to say funny things like, ‘I need to make a man out of you’. I think he wanted me to have the kind of courage one needs to live in a man’s world, and a world full of death,” says the author.

That this paid dividends is evident from her comment, “By the time I got to college, I’d read every book that was in the curriculum. And because my father had invested so much time and effort in my swimming skills, I was given a full athletic scholarship to attend university. My dad didn’t care if I liked my upbringing or not.” An ace swimmer who graduated in English Education from the University of South Florida, Nancy has worked as a freelance writer, a swimming coach and a teacher, and her works have appeared in different publications, including The New York Times.

Nancy, through this book hopes to “give people a way to talk about AD”. Also, “if readers aren’t ready to talk about it in their own family, then they can talk about it in mine. I was raised with Alzheimer’s at the centre of my universe. It was unnerving at times, but also inspiring. I hope people will take a journey with my father’s memory.”

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 5:40:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/brain-in-a-jar-a-daughters-take-on-alzheimers/article6341892.ece

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