The Art of Losing

(published 22 February 2015, MST)

Alice is a 50-year-old linguistics professor at Columbia University. She has a loving husband, another academician, John. They have three beautiful children: Anna is a lawyer, just married and expecting her first child. Tom is attending medical school. Lydia is pursuing an acting career despite having dropped out of college.  Alice has a PhD, has published numerous books and given lectures all over the world, and is highly regarded by her students and colleagues. She is ambitious, driven, successful. In other words, she has it all.
Her world however soon starts crumbling. Erratic episodes lead her to consult a neurologist, and after a few tests it is discovered she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. It progresses fast, and Alice and her family are overwhelmed at the speed of her deterioration.
This is the plot of the movie Still Alice with Julianne Moore in the starring role, a strong contender for various categories at the Academy Awards to be held this weekend (Monday morning our time). The film is an adaptation of the 2007 novel of the same title by neuroscientist Lisa Genova. Oscars or no Oscars, however, the film is a winner all its own for the reflections it evokes for anyone who would take time and wonder: What makes us, us?
The once-sought after professor now gets bad reviews from students until the university has to let her go. She starts repeating sentences she has just uttered. She jogs in a familiar neighborhood and loses her way. She forgets where the bathroom is in her own house and wets herself. She tells her husband, she wishes she had cancer instead.
During a lucid moment, Alice plots her own suicide, recording a video for that moments when she could no longer answer the most basic questions about her own life. When she does find the video and follows its instructions, she accidentally scatters the pills on the floor.
One day, she is invited to speak at a conference about her condition, and her words give us a peek into how it must feel to have one’s life -- basically contained in memory -- slipping.
“All my life, I have accumulated memories that have become my precious possessions. The night I met my husband, the first time I held my textbook in my hands, having children, making friends, traveling the world. Everything that I accumulated in life, everything I worked so hard for -- all that is being ripped away. This is hell -- but it gets worse.
“Who can take us seriously when we are so far from who we once were?
Our strange behavior, fumbled sentences change others’ perception of us and our perception of ourselves. We become ridiculous, incapable, comic. But this is not who we are. This is our disease.
“For the time being, I know I am still alive.  I have people I love dearly. Things i want to do in my life. I will not rail against myself too much for not being able to remember things...I am not suffering; I am struggling. Struggling to stay connected to who I was once...I won’t beat myself up too much for mastering the art of losing.”
Eventually the husband leaves Alice for a job in another state, and the family’s non-conformer Lydia moves back into the house to care for her mother. The last scene shows Alice not being able to speak anymore -- supreme irony for someone who has built her career in language -- but Lydia, overwhelmed with love, understands her perfectly nonetheless.
A person is defined by all the things he or she said, did, and went through from the beginning. Our history shapes us and is responsible for the way we are right now. Our own perception of ourselves and the world around us depends on experience. So when experience --which is what memory contains -- is lost, where do we find ourselves?
We know this piece of advice too well: Do not accumulate material goods. Make memories instead. Granting these memories are made, but are lost, what would be left?
Still Alice is a film about Alzheimer’s, but it does not mean that only those with the disease or their families could relate to it. It cautions the rest of us against taking people, events, and things for granted. It prods us to live in the moment, enjoy every little experience and make sure we try to make a difference in every single life we touch.
And for those living with Alzheimer’s, or plain old age, or dealing with any kind of loss, bear in mind: That something slips does not mean it never happened, or was never there.