Losing It

When Nadler told Tate that it was likely he had an incurable, degenerative brain disease, he remembers Murray saying, "'Oh yeah, I can see that.' He was very matter-of-fact, as if now he had an answer to an important question. He had to take it home and process it."

After learning the diagnosis, the Tates enrolled in the Family Workshop, a now-defunct seven-week program designed to give families exposure to practical information and get them working together to better cope with the demands of the disease. Dr. Wayne Caron, a family therapist who worked in the program in conjunction with a gerontologist and an occupational therapist, says he assumed incoming families had already gone through a long ordeal before the diagnosis. "The symptoms of Alzheimer's can be slowly emerging for years. All that time, a person is struggling with the feeling that something is wrong with me but I don't know what it is. The family feels it too."

According to members of the family, Murray was always stoic. "He's a classic Norwegian," Lois says. "Y'know, the one who loved his wife so much he almost told her." More privately, Lois and at least three of the four children in the family believe Murray's repressed emotions stem from his traumatic childhood, including physical abuse, and the responsibility he bore at such an early age. "The way our dad used to show us he loved us was to fill our cars with gas and give us a $20 bill," says Joellen, the second-oldest child. Her favorite memories are of playing out in the garage while Murray tinkered on the junk cars he'd buy for $50 and sell for a modest profit once he'd gotten them running. Any conversation between them consisted of small talk; occasionally she'd hear Murray whistle or sing to himself, happy to be caught up in the task at hand.

But about a year or two before his Alzheimer's diagnosis, Joellen saw a marked change in her father's emotional makeup during her biennial visits from her home in Alaska. "About four years ago, there was a point where any time you left he would break into hysterical sobs," she recalls. "I think it was because he thought it was the last time he would be alive to see me. The first time it happened, that might have been the first time I saw my father cry."

The other children have similar memories. "He'd get emotionally charged up and just hang on to it," says Ross, the only son. "He'd be quiet, just sit there watching TV with tears in his eyes. I'd ask him about it and get a minimal response; he'd turn the other way or go off to another room." Maureen, the youngest daughter, says, "I think he was worrying about what was happening to him, and he was hanging on as hard as he could until his grandson and granddaughter were born. I think that was important for him. In his own way, I think he has been more emotional. He has told my mother he loved her. And I've probably seen him cry more times in the last five years than in my entire life."

Nevertheless, Caron concedes he found Murray "remarkably sanguine after learning of something that would have horrified most people." He attributes this in part to Murray's stoicism, in part to his previous near-brushes with death ("they've already cracked his chest open"), and to the support of his family, noting that the people who experience the most difficulty are the ones who are alone.

Dr. Knopman, the neurologist, favors a more medical explanation for Murray's "sanguine" reaction to his condition. "Only rarely do people get distraught," he says. "Part of the reason it doesn't happen more often is that one of the fundamental aspects of the disease is to impair insight. The patient is less likely to understand the implications for his future."

t is difficult to know exactly where Murray Tate stands on the continuum of Alzheimer's deterioration. Life expectancy generally ranges from five to 15 years once the symptoms have become apparent, which, if you date the condition from the home entertainment center episode, puts him at six or seven years. His panic attacks have mostly subsided and his children say he seems more at peace with himself.

"Sometimes I'll start downstairs without thinking and sort of wake up and wonder, 'What the hell am I doing over here?'" he says. "Sometimes I'll be doing a little job and need the pliers or a screwdriver or some damn thing. But I'll go get it and forget what I'm doing. I have to sit down for two or three minutes until it comes back to me. But I don't worry about it. It's amazing how little the little stuff bothers you if you just let it go."

While he is holding forth in great detail at the kitchen table about the Army and the railroad, the phone rings. It's a representative of the cemetery where Lois's parents are buried, calling to get some information. He is able to supply the first and last names of his late in-laws and tell the caller that he and his wife have moved to a new condo in the past two years. But when he is asked to supply his new address, he draws a blank until he remembers that it's printed on the wristband that he wears in case he gets lost.

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