The Battle Against Dementia: The Dark Descent of an Unlikely Victim
It's spring 2006, and a woman I vaguely recognize approaches me at a party, her auburn wig askew and a glass of wine wobbling in her hand. She announces cheerfully that, at 63, she has recently retired from the Virginia newspaper where I still work.
"I have dementia, in case you didn't know!"
I didn't know. In fact, I don't even recognize her until she lifts her wig to reveal a tamped-down mass of gray-brown curls. It's our paper's longtime copy desk chief, whose reign of terror over young reporters and clunky sentences is legend.
Lynn Forbish. The sight of that name in your e-mail in-box could turn your palms sweaty and your face red. No matter how many years you've logged as a journalist or how many awards you've won, a note from the Queen of the Copy Desk could bring you to your knees: "Never use five words when one will suffice—just don't make it one of your usual clichés."
She was from the old school of reporting: If your mother says she loves you, check it out—or Lynn just might do the checking for you, and you didn't want that. She crowed about doing the Sunday New York Times crossword in ink and scolded coworkers for minor infractions like turning on their desk lamps, claiming the light bothered her eyes. She was gruff and merciless, and on the rare days when she said she actually liked something you wrote, it felt better than a bonus check.
But on this day she is giddy, almost manic, and not at all uptight. The wig-wearing Lynn is so friendly that she invites me to follow her to her house (she happens to live next door to my babysitter, whose college graduation we're now celebrating), where she gives me a tour of her garden and asks me inside to look at her antique perfume bottle collection and Art Deco prints.
I expect Lynn's house to be as precise as her edits. But the piano where she once played Chopin waltzes from memory is piled with old mail and bills. Cartons of Febreze are stacked nearby in an apparently forgotten plan to mask the smell of an abandoned cat-litter box.
Lynn is in the early stages of Lewy body dementia, a degenerative brain disease that shares traits with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. She didn't realize how confused she'd become until our newspaper, The Roanoke Times, switched computer systems the year prior and she kept botching the most basic functions. I later learn that a coworker once summoned the elevator to our third-floor newsroom, only to find Lynn standing inside, confused. She hadn't known which button to push.
But I know none of this at the time. So I'm astonished when Lynn starts to describe for me, in detail and with a copy editor's precision, what it's like to lose your mind. "Some days I can't remember whether my bra hooks in the front or the back," she says.
Her son and daughter-in-law have already taken her car keys away following a late-night collision with a street sign. The only thing left to lose is her house. "Where will you go?" I ask. Lynn looks down, rubs her hands together, and says she isn't sure. "Do you know?"
Then she cackles, as if it's all a joke. She takes my hand and pulls me into her bathroom, squaring my shoulders in front of the mirror. It's like we're best friends—only we don't know each other much outside of work, beyond occasional chats about my babysitter and our mutual love of gardening.
She takes off her wig again and, apropos of nothing, forces it onto my head, tucking my hair underneath. The new Lynn is happier, sillier, than anyone has ever known her to be.
But the bossy editor soon reappears.
"Write my story—before I forget it," she tells me. "This thing that's...damn...this thing." She can't conjure the word. "People need to know about this thing. Because so much of this is...it's wrong."
Lynn is no longer the terror. "This thing" is the terror. And as she has been about so many things before—before the Lewy bodies started to nibble away at her neurons and commenced turning them to goo—the Queen of the Copy Desk is right. People need to know.