Monday, November 13, 2006

To Follow Knowledge Like a Sinking Star, Beyond the Utmost Bound of Human Thought

I have written a few times now about stem cell research and the general one-liners about why it should go forward with federal support. I have alluded to personal stories of why individuals might support it, and how these kind of stories make it difficult for me to see how anyone could oppose the research, stifling the benefits that can be gained. Today, I do not want to make policy arguments. Today, I do not want to speak to global ideals. Today, I do not want to talk about the generations that will follow those alive today. Today I want to talk about my grandfather.

Today is the fifth anniversary of my grandfather's death. He was a brilliant man. He tried to be the best at everything he did, and he usually succeeded. After fleeing Germany with his parents in the early 1930s, my grandfather went from being educated at the best schools in Europe to being apprenticed to an importer in Central America in the middle of the Great Depression. During World War II, he made a deal with the United States embassy to come to this country, join the Army, and become a citizen.

My grandfather served as a soldier in Europe, although he never saw combat. He was about to be shipped to the Pacific when the war ended. After serving in occupied Germany, he came back to the U.S. to attend college on the G.I. Bill. He started school at the University of Oklahoma, and settled into life there. I was raised on stories of my grandfather winning spending money by playing bridge for a penny a point. From an early age, I was shown pictures of an obscure auto race in Oklahoma, and being told that my grandfather had taken the pictures with his most prized possession, a camera that he stretched his means to the breaking point to acquire. That story was usually followed by my father or his siblings talking about my grandfather blinding them with a surprise flash from a giant flashbulb on his camera as they were growing up.

My grandfather graduated with a grade point average higher than many people I know can count. He took the national accounting examination, and won an award for having the highest score in the country. He had been given intelligence tests while in the Army, and again had scores among the highest that had been seen. His scores showed him to have the equivalent of a year of college already completed, even though it is unclear if he even finished high school. He was called back into service for the Korean War, but instead of being sent to Asia, he worked as an auditor for the Army.

After he completed his service, my grandparents started their family. My grandfather was at first in debt to his father in law, and at the end of his life he was more than able to provide for generations of his family. In between, he raised four children, was the founding partner of a division in the Houston office of a major accounting firm, and did the best he could to set an example of how to live a good life.

My grandparents retired to the northwest, and every year my family would visit at Thanksgiving. They lived in a great house on the shores of a lake, with a view that serves as the backdrop for a series of pictures of me and my father during the first decade of my life. Every time we visited, I would spend a day with my grandfather, working on one little project or another. One year, when I was about 12, he decided that we were going to make a box. There was nothing special about the box in and of itself, but it was a huge thing for me. We carefully made the plans on his computer, we picked out, marked, and cut the wood in his workshop, and methodically put the pieces of the box together. Everything was done meticulously, and everything down to the final detail was planned. At the end of the day, we had not quite finished sanding it, but my grandfather presented the finished product to me the next day. I still have the box, and I keep reminders of memorable events from my life in it.

This was the kind of thing he always did. Everything was always so carefully planned and explained. My father tells me a story about how he once wrote some software that would help my grandfather make calculations. Instead of just taking the new tool and taking advantage of the new shortcut, my grandfather needed to have the software explained line by line. He had my father go through the code with him until he understood every single detail. He was never satisfied not understanding anything in his life, and he would never give up learning about something until he was completely comfortable with it.

The next year, we flew back to the northwest for Thanksgiving. I was all ready to work on another project, and could not wait to see what it would be. When we got to the house, however, my parents and grandparents told me and my sister that our grandfather was too old to work with his tools, and that he could not work on that kind of project anymore. Instead, we did other things while we spent time with our grandparents, but it could never be the same as working on that box. Shortly after that, my father started making regular trips to the northwest to help my grandparents move out of that great house and into a condominium, again because my grandfather was "too old" to have such a large house, and it was not safe for him to live there anymore.

What I could not understand at that point, and what my family was shielding me from for a little while longer, was the knowledge that my grandfather was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. This man, who had tested at the top of everything he had ever attempted, who recognized the importance of education and knowledge, was slowly losing his mind, his memory, and his very self.

Over the next few years, the disease progressed. Slowly but surely, the mind disappeared. My grandfather had to be put in a home, as he needed constant care and my grandmother could no longer provide it. My father, his oldest child, took me, his oldest grandchild, to visit him in the home one time. To get there, we took an elevator down to a secure floor. It was secure by needing a simple key code entered to operate the elevator, but it was far too complicated for anyone with Alzheimer's to operate. To this day I have trouble squaring the man who wanted the complex code behind the calculation software explained line by line with the man who could not operate a simple numeric keypad. When we got there, we sat with my grandfather in the cafeteria. We spoke a little, my father introducing us. My grandfather nodded, acknowledging us but not really aware of who we were. He was excited to see us, so much so that the staff had trouble making him eat, but even that was only a small consolation for seeing what was happening to him. It was so hard to see this man who could do anything, and who planned everything so carefully and to the tiniest detail, unable to feed himself or recognize his family.

While this was the hardest thing about my grandfather's condition for me to see, my father had a different perspective. To him, the hardest aspect was that my grandfather lost his own personal set of moral values. Being honest and acting morally was very important to him. When he came to the United States, my grandfather had the opportunity to change his last name to something more "American." He declined, saying he was the latest in a trans-generational series of honest men, and that he would honor their memory by keeping his name and passing it on to his own children and grandchildren. Always honest, always moral, always acting with integrity, my grandfather earned the respect of everyone he ever crossed paths with.

When he first found out the diagnosis, my grandfather decided that he would do anything he could to increase the general body of knowledge on Alzheimer's, and at the same time do everything he could to prolong both his life and his mind. To that end, he took part in drug studies, and did whatever he could to help future generations understand and possibly treat the disease. I do not know if his last conscious thoughts before his mind was too far gone were anger or sadness at his having this disease. I would like to think that he was sad to have it, but happy that he had so many years with his wife, that he had lived to see his children grow up and start their own families.

If we poured $100 billion into Alzheimer's and stem cell research today, we would not have a cure tomorrow. If we had done so six years ago, my grandfather would still not be alive today. The races for cures to all of these diseases, be they Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or any of the myriad of other diseases that stem cell research hold the possibility of cures for, are marathons, not sprints. The answers are not just around the corner, but it is far past time to be asking the questions. I do not understand how anyone who has seen a family member or friend descend into the depths that Alzheimer's subjects even the strongest minds would not want the research to go forward in any way shape or form.

I did not write this to make policy arguments or to call on our elected officials to pass legislation authorizing stem cell research. I wrote this to tell my grandfather's story. He fought the disease that afflicted him and took his mind with everything he had for as long as he could. By staying healthy and taking part in drug trials, he told me that he did not want to be an anonymous person that exists only on the winds whistling through the mountains of the northwest. Instead, he wanted to educate people and fight the disease. I can only hope that his story sparks the conversations that need to be had, and that he would have been proud of the way his story is presented to the world.