My father knew it was coming.
Alzheimer's disease had been on his radar ever since his own father died of it. Witnessing the catastrophic deterioration of a man who had been sharp enough to work for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, my frightened father was inspired to become a neurologist. Perhaps the pursuit of medicine could stave off what he believed was a genetic inevitability.
As an ever-present reminder of that threat, he kept an atrophied brain in a jar on his desk. That brain, I recently discovered, belonged to his father.
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: Omega 3s, 6s, 9s; vitamins E and C; ginkgo biloba, rosemary and sage; folic acid; flaxseed.
After retiring from his neurology practice in Naples, Fla., he spent hours a day doing math. Even when I was visiting, he'd sit silently on his leather recliner with a calculator to verify the accuracy of calculations he did by memory.
"What are you saving your mind for, Dad?" I often wondered to myself. "I'm here now, waiting to talk with you."
On one of these occasions, he suddenly looked up from his Sudoku game and stared at me.
"Promise me something, gal," he said.
"Anything," I answered.
"Swear on your grandmother's Bible that you will put a gun to my head if I wind up like my father."
He was dead serious.
How do you answer a man who watched his father wipe feces on the walls of their Virginia farmhouse? A man who took out a second mortgage to buy the first CT scanner in Florida?
"Swear to me," he repeated. He collected guns and kept them under lock and key. He knew I could shoot them, because he'd taught me how. I put my hand on the leather-bound King James Bible that had belonged to my great-grandmother Nannie Dunlap and my grandmother Nancy Scott.
"I swear," I said.
He nodded in approval.
A few years later, my father arrived at my home in Vermont with a suitcase full of supplements. He parceled out his pills for the week into Dixie cups, ready for swallowing with every meal.
"Gal, you should be taking these, too."
"Because you are my genetic clone."
Our physical resemblance and character traits were uncanny: tall, big-lipped, blue-eyed, loose-jointed, freckle-skinned, angst-ridden Bercaws. Except for our male and female chromosomes, nearly everything about us was a perfect match.
My father went on to explain that everyone inherits one copy of the APOE gene from each parent. The gene can indicate a predisposing genetic risk for Alzheimer's. APOE-2 is relatively rare and may even provide some protection against the disease. APOE-3 is the most common and appears to have a neutral role. APOE-4 indicates the highest risk factor.
"I'm only 34! Can't I think about this later?"
He shook his head.
Back in Florida, he sent me a genetic test kit via FedEx, instructing me to have the blood drawn at my physician's office but to have the results sent to him. It turned out that like my father I carry the APOE-3 gene, which means I may or may not get the disease.
But unlike my father, I will have to wait to find out. In 2009, at age 71, he had an MRI that showed "atrophy consistent" with Alzheimer's disease. He looked at the film and was confused by the sight of his own brain.
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