I just had a birthday, and to honor such occasions, my sister always gives me silver. Not just any silver: It’s our parents’ simple wedding flatware pattern, which Margaret collects for me, one piece at a time. Over the years that the slender boxes have appeared, I’ve wondered if any of it is from the full service for 12 that I pulled in a suitcase through Manhattan’s Diamond District and sold one dreadful day 25 years ago.
It had been my assignment to sell it —- that, and a ring of Margaret’s, one of mine and, right off our mother’s finger, her engagement ring and platinum wedding band. The sum received was probably a quarter of their monetary worth, and nothing near their emotional value, but it financed two more weeks of home care for our mother, an Alzheimer’s patient. After five years of caring for her at home, we had run through the family savings.
It was a few years before the sale of the silver that I first wrote about us, in a 1983 magazine article that, impossible as it may seem now, introduced Alzheimer’s disease to millions of people who didn’t know what it was, including the seasoned magazine editor to whom I first pitched the story. Last Sunday, HBO began a three-night series, produced by California’s first lady, Maria Shriver, about a disease that now needs no introduction.
When I first wrote about Alzheimer’s, I searched out some of the best minds of the time, including Lewis Thomas, the great science writer, former dean of Yale Medical School and then-chancellor of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He called Alzheimer’s disease “the disease of the century” because, he said, “of all the health problems in the 20th century, this one is the worst.”
That quote got people’s attention, as did the words “angry, incompetent, hostile and incontinent,” which is how I described my mother. She was then 51, two years younger than I am now. I exposed her for who she had become in exchange for the attention I hoped the article might bring for her disease.
In years that followed, congressional hearings were held, state task forces were convened and city committees were formed. Research dollars were allotted as well. But those were the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, and despite the fact that embryonic stem cell research had been conducted in the U.S. since the middle of the 20th century, contributing to such wonders as vaccines for both rubella and polio, it was rebranded and became strongly associated with abortion. In the years that followed, despite the well-known fact that stem cell research was the most promising path to finding cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other diseases, this country allowed the personal beliefs of the anti-abortion forces to become public policy. And that lasted a very long time.
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