Thursday, November 17, 2005

Robert McAfee Brown and LBD

Robert McAfee Brown, the prominent theologian, developed Lewy Body Dementia in his last few years and died in 2001.
I just read parts of his memoir, Reflections over the Long Haul (Westminster John Knox, 2005).
Attending a college reunion, I ran into my friend Pia Moriarty and learned that she had helped him to edit the manuscript during the last three years of his life.
We had both taken classes from him when he was a professor of religious studies at Stanford University in the 1960s. Earlier he had taught at Union Seminary in New York City, having studied there under Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.
His memoir ends with an epilogue, "Papa's Final Days," written by his daughter Alison. Her words are diffused with a beautiful spirituality and "sense of his love still present here with us" (p. 302).
As in the case of many older persons, particularly LBD patients, Brown fell in the summer of 2001, breaking his hip and undergoing surgery before being moved to a nursing home and not living much longer.
The only mention of Lewy Body is in the prologue, written by his wife, Sydney Thomson Brown.
"About four years before he died, Bob noticed that he was having memory problems," she writes. "His doctor referred him to a therapist about his concerns. After a battery of tests, he was diagnosed with Lewy Body Disease, a disease in which, in a very random way, different parts of the brain become disabled. Bob knew that he had an illness of progressive brain debility, that it might be held in check but not cured. We wanted most for him to continue in hope, and he did. Certain areas of his brain were not functioning well; others were excellent. If in the course of daily life he became confused, we simplified our activities. For the most part, we continued on as usual" (p. xv).
Pia comments that throughout his life, "He went into the joyful and suffering situations of people's lives, stood by them, offered as practical a compassion as he could, and found words to honor the God that he found there." For example, he took part in the Freedom Rides in the South in the early 1960s, in the United Farm Worker movement in California, and in actively opposing the Vietnam War.
"According to Christian thinking, the primal accompaniment is God's great act of incarnation," she explains. "Bob worked and lived this out in his own life, and as he struggled in the end, let us walk in accompaniment with him."
I enjoy thinking about Brown's family and friends accompanying him in his journey through Lewy Body and through his dying. It makes it easier for me, knowing that a great man like this had to take this humbling path.
Sometimes I feel as if my mother is the only crazy one, and I am the only one putting up with things like her hallucinations and fears. Or I imagine that her dementia is who she is, perhaps somehow even who she has always been.
Knowing that this deeply insightful man developed LBD reminds me that her illness is just that--an accident/incident in the last few years of her very productive and busy life.
Many passages of this memoir give me courage to walk on in the journey with my mother. I will quote just one, from Sydney's prologue:
"Today he would say: Pay attention. View the world with imagination, compassion, energy. See that the world is not as it was meant to be. Learn to connect your theology and your Bible to God's people and creation all around you. Be followers of Jesus--work for radical revolutions for a just and caring world. And in all this, may you be equipped with courage" (p. xiv).

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