The story that photojournalist Douglas Burgess and I put together for our newscast is very personal to me. It’s the story about Lon Cole, just 64, and one of 150,000 Washingtonians who have Alzheimer's disease.
It’s personal because my mother has Alzheimer's too. Gloria Sharify is 85 and needs 24-hour care. When I visit her in New York, she is always happy to see me. Actually, thrilled is more like it. Never mind that most of the time she thinks I’m her brother or someone else. I’m grateful she understands that we’re even related. I treasure my moments with her. But it’s very sad. The other day at Christmas dinner we were talking about my mom and I told my family that I missed my mother. Everyone knew what I meant.
Now the story about Lon Cole.
Lon is one of those guys who makes you smile. “I’m alive and thankful," is his answer when people ask him how he’s doing. And he really is alive and thankful. He started using that expression after he returned from Vietnam, where he served as a combat medic.
“My job was to keep people alive,” he said. I say to him midway through the interview, “I can’t even tell.” He nods, knowing that I am referring to his Alzheimer's, and says “I know.”
The fact is, Lon has early onset Alzheimer's, and most of the time you can’t tell. But his family knows, and it breaks their hearts.
“It’s difficult to see your dad change,” says Lon’s daughter Heidi, holding back tears. Early onset Alzheimer's refers to those under 65 with the disease. Lon was diagnosed at 61.
“It’s like a fog comes over me,” says Lon. He has good days and bad. On his good days, he sits in his office at home, gets out a blank piece of paper and starts writing.
“The first phrase usually comes with a flash,” he says. Lon writes poems about his decline. “You're Not Alone,” he reads. “I am not afraid to face it. I must do the best that I can. And if I fall short in my journey, I will get up and start again.”
When I first talked to Lon on the phone, I told him about my mother and how she has Alzheimer's too. The next time I saw him, he had a poem in his hand entitled, “So Close to Your Heart." It was to honor my mom.
I will forever be grateful to this kind man for the poem that honors my mother. The last lines of it are especially powerful: “As your day arrives and it is your time to leave, they will honor your memory and always believe.”
Thank you Lon.
Lon and his family live in Puyallup and they’re very active with the local Alzheimer's groups, including the one here in Seattle. You can reach them at alz.org, and they have a 24/7 Helpline at 1.800.272.3900.
Five-to-ten percent of the 150,000 Washington residents with Alzheimer's have early onset. “We’re seeing more and more of these young onset Alzheimer’s cases,” says Keri Pollack, Communications Director at the Alzheimer’s Association of Western and Central Washington State. “There is no cure or even therapy to stop its progress,” Pollack adds.
Lon knows that, of course. That’s why he’s in a big hurry to write as many poems as fast as he can. This poem is one of my favorites:
Where am I going?
Where am I going? Will I ever get there?
Will somebody know me? Does this all seem fair?
I’m sure there is someone who feels what I feel.
But has trouble expressing the pain that is real.
But I must keep going and steer from the past.
For each day is hopeful, and nothing is cast.
I’ll look for tomorrow and live for today.
And hold to the good as it passes my way.
I’m strong to the challenge and must be sincere.
For life is a gift so precious and dear.
--By Lon Cole