I am fascinated with how various physical, mental, and emotional traits flow through the family genetic river generation after generation. My older brother, Ross, looked very much like photos I’ve seen of our father’s father; and also, our mother’s brother. He had the humor of our father and our mother’s father, which included a love of puns. He also suffered in his last years with dementia; as did out father’s mother.
Ross passed from this life just after midnight as Memorial Day turned into Tuesday morning. He had turned 79 a few weeks earlier, in late April. He and Virginia shared forty-five adventure-filled years – most of them in Ann Arbor, Michigan where they met. Both were graduate students at the University of Michigan at the time.
His last few years were a challenge as his brilliant, National-Merit-Scholarship winner brain began to betray him. He had virtually no short-term memory. I think the official diagnosis was Fronto-Temporal Dementia. Regardless of the diagnosis, the result was heart-breaking to watch. He graduated in the top two percentile in high school, but in these last few years he didn’t realize he’d just told us the same story a couple of minutes earlier. He could barely figure out how to talk on a phone. He needed help with all the most basic aspects of daily life.
The resulting mental confusion meant he wasn’t capable of cooperating enough to engage in the physical therapy required for the knee replacement surgery he needed. When the pain got too great, he landed in a wheelchair. There he sat, waiting on others to do for him what he could no longer do for himself.
Though never diagnosed, my younger brother and I are convinced Ross also struggled with some variation of Asperger’s his entire life. Social interactions were a chronic struggle for him. Being raised by a Civil Engineer father meant moving every year or so for the first half of his childhood. The frequent moves made finding his social stride all the more challenging.
High IQ, Intense Focus
I don’t know if that was the cause of his fixations or not, but once he latched onto something, he did not easily let go of it. The subject of his intense focus varied from decade to decade, but the level of it did not waiver. He represents a wide swath of society that we tend to misunderstand and either mock or ignore. Yet, these gifted people with the combination of high IQ’s and equally high degrees of focus on one thing are the people who often make the most significant contributions to the world.
At this funeral service we took turns telling of our memories of him. My sister-in-law amazed us with stories of Ross on stage in community theatre. Being cast in a dance scene launched him into ballroom dancing; a hobby that took both of them to competitions. Those activities dominated much of his conversation for years. He loved to travel, especially by train, or in a camper, or on foot as they hiked high and far through South and Central America.
What I know about his professional life I learned when my sister-in-law Virginia asked me to write his obituary. I was amazed at what I learned. I knew he worked for the NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, where we grew up. I had no idea what he did there. Though I added it to his obituary, I do not understand what ion propulsion thrusters do. I was pleased to learn part of his career was with the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan (ERIM). We share a love and respect for the environment; though from two very different approaches. Mine is the love and concern about wildlife that has suffered to the point of extinction from our human arrogance and ignorance. His connection had something to do with software development and artificial intelligence for remote sensing in military and biomedical applications. I had no idea.
What I do know is that, though he always struggled to fit in with the popular people, he lived a scandal-free life, was faithful to Virginia, and always generous to me, our younger brother, and my daughters and their families. When I was a young teenager, he figured out how to convert two five-dollar bills into the shape of a horse. He gave that to me for my birthday when I was in my crazy-about-horses phase. Ten dollars back then would buy an hour of horseback riding at the stables in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, near our home. When I was in high school, he bought me my first typewriter to encourage my budding love of writing. We played many rounds of Scrabble over the years. I always lost. Ditto for the many trips around the Monopoly board. I don’t recall ever winning an argument with him.
Hope and Help
My last visit with him was last fall when I helped Virginia move him into the memory care group home she found for him. I sat with him in his new room keeping him company while she was in the office tending to the necessary paper work.
I salute Joanna LeFleur at Memory Lane in Ypsilanti. She saw a need for more compassionate care for people with dementia and opened her heart and two homes to them. She fought to keep Ross at her small group home when hospital staff planned to release him to institutional care. The feature photo is a collage from his days there.
I close with this observation: What is it about us that we glorify beauty, athletic prowess, and people who, often through deception and corruption, become wealthy and powerful? Yet we often do not fully appreciate or understand the people who work quietly behind the scenes to cure diseases, launch space ships to the moon – and back; and build the systems that deliver everything we need for daily life from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, to the water we drink. I maintain most people we label as problem people are only people with problems neither they nor society knows how to resolve.
RIP in Ross.
Thank you for taking time to read my reflections about my older brother. Please forward this to a friend. Use the subscribe form in the right sidebar to get your free checklist about how to distinguish between normal age-related memory challenges and clinical dementia.