A Tale of Two Neurons

February 29, 2016

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. It is the winter of despair, it is the spring of hope. We have everything before us, we have nothing before us.  We are all going direct to Heaven, we are all going direct the other way--in short, I will recall the leap year 2016 in extremes. For me, there is no middle ground.  _____________________________________________________________________

My next-door neighbor, Cindy, has Huntington’s disease.  She was diagnosed a year ago at the age of 47. Her life expectancy is approximately ten years, during which her brain will shrivel up like a raisin, robbing her of motor, sensory, and cognitive function.

One night a few weeks ago, Cindy knocked on my apartment door. I opened it and stood face-to-face with her for the first time since she’d moved in. Before that, our contact consisted of politely smiling and saying a shy hello while she hurriedly walked her dog past my patio. But now here she was, staring at me in unblinking, wide-eyed terror, the kind you see on the face of a child who has wakened from a nightmare.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” she said, “I can’t remember my name or where I am.” As wild as her eyes looked, she spoke calmly and clearly. Her pupils appeared to be normal and symmetrical. I saw no paralysis and guessed she was not having a stroke.

“Come in,” I said. “Your name is Cindy and you’re safe. We’ll sort it out. You’re going to be okay.” As I asked questions that challenged her memory, I gained a tiny glimpse of her tragedies. Her mother and sister had died from Huntington’s. Her father remarried and rebooted his life, one in which she had no place. She had no one except her best friend, Janice, who lived three hours away.

Now she was fretting about her dog. “I can’t take care of her, I don’t know what to do.” She raised her arms outwards and let them fall at her sides in a gesture of helplessness. “I do remember my dog’s name, though. Neuron.”  She searched my face for validation. “Is that right?”

I must have heard her wrong. She had told me the week before that the dog’s name was Braylen. I nodded. “That’s right,” I said, and managed an encouraging smile. The crippled leading the demented, I mused. The thought lingered pleasantly; it reminded me of my mother’s trips to the eye doctor for macular degeneration treatment. I would guide her down the halls after the dilating drops took effect. The crippled leading the blind, I would joke out loud to the assistants as we passed by. It made my mother laugh.

A few days later Cindy was rushed to the hospital. Neuron—or Braylen, I still wasn’t sure what the damn dog’s name really was-- barked nonstop in the now empty apartment. My neighbors complained about the noise and I assured them that Janice would arrive soon. It irritated me that I they showed no concern for Cindy. Then a month later, she knocked on my patio door. Again, she was wide-eyed with fear. “I know something’s wrong,” she said. “Can you call an ambulance for me please?”

I talked to the 911 dispatcher at length about Cindy’s symptoms until the EMTs arrived. After she’d gone, Neuron/Braylen yelped pitiably in her empty apartment next door. It didn’t bother me, but I wasn’t looking forward to hearing my neighbors grouse about the noise. Glen the maintenance man called me later. “I knew you’d be concerned about Cindy so I wanted you to know the dog’s being taken care of. And thanks so much for helping her.” I was stunned by the gratitude, but thanked him for calling. Then a wonderful thing happened.

Over the next few days, my neighbors stopped me in the hall and thanked me profusely for helping Cindy. The apartment manager knocked on my door and thanked me. And 87-year-old Rose, who I think of as my Italian mama—asked me to call her if I ever needed help with Cindy. “We’ve all got to help each other out,” she insisted, “We’ll all need help some day.” I heard not one single complaint about the dog.

I returned to my apartment and stared into space, reeling from all the good will. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shadow dart away from my bedroom door, something with a canine shape. When I looked at it again straight on, nothing was there. It had somewhat resembled Neuron/Braylen, who was medium-sized, curly-tailed and snow white from head to toe. But this shadowy canine/Neuron had, for a split second, seemed to undulate from gray to black. It made no sound--and now it was gone. Just then, grief welled up from my gut and I collapsed onto the couch, sobbing. I realized I had been isolating myself in my apartment for too long and grown gloomy, forgetful and irritable. A black hole had been swirling and widening inside my head, sucking in hope and despair like interstellar dark matter swallows whole galaxies and solar systems. My elderly neighbors had been doing the same thing, isolating themselves, growing self-centered and peevish.

By crashing out of her own isolation and reaching out to us for help, Cindy restored us all to our caring selves once more.

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