The debilitation that Alzheimer’s disease wreaks on the mind is incredibly sad to me. Whether in real life (as with President Reagan) or in fiction (as portrayed in the 2006 movie Away From Her), the notion of losing one’s memories of events and loved ones is almost too painful to contemplate.
For that reason, the Washington Post’s obituary of Thomas DeBaggio resonates with me. DeBaggio, the Post writes, was “a nationally prominent herb grower and gardening author who became a defiant and poignant voice for fellow Alzheimer's patients.” He died of the disease a week ago at 69 years of age.
The Post begins by describing his horticultural exploits:
He started selling tomato seedlings he raised from his garden in the Arlington County neighborhood of Ashton Heights, near where he grew up.
By 1975, the adventure had developed into a nursery run from his home. He converted most of his yard into greenhouse space, where he raised thousands of cuttings of lavender, rosemary, mint, scented geraniums and other plants that caught his fancy.
Patrons and gardening writers flocked to the home, drawn by the aromatherapy experience of entering the greenhouse and the astonishing range of varieties that Mr. DeBaggio grew.
To his loyal customers, he commended a variety of rosemary that was winter-hardy in Washington, and he introduced about a dozen varieties of herbs that he had raised as selected seedlings or mutations, including a rosemary variety named for his wife of 47 years, the former Joyce Doyle.
Mr. DeBaggio wrote or co-wrote several well-regarded books about herbs. Even while consumed by the business, he channeled his need to write by penning a column in the nursery's catalogue.
At the dawn of the new millennium, he noticed that something was changing:
In the spring 2000 nursery catalogue, he began to note periodic moments of confusion and forgetfulness. "The seeds become familiar companions as I teeter on the cusp of spring," he wrote. "It is at this time of year that I become acutely aware of the trembling life that is within me, as well as in the seed."
As well he should have, it turns out.
He had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's – a rare disorder that affects those younger than 65 – and said he initially tried to reach out to another new patient on the advice of the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.
"I called and his wife answered the phone," Mr. DeBaggio told the New York Times. "I said who I was and that I had been asked to call him. She said: 'He doesn't want to see you. He doesn't want to talk to you. Goodbye.'
"That told me a whole lot about Alzheimer's," Mr. DeBaggio said. "It's a disease you hide."
Fortunately, DeBaggio did not suffer in silence. Instead, he went public, raising awareness of the issues involved through television appearances and books:
But Mr. DeBaggio decided to confront the degenerative brain disease by going public about it. He appeared on Oprah Winfrey's TV talk show. His journey into darkness was chronicled by National Public Radio. And he wrote two books about his life and the effects of the disease, "Losing My Mind" (2002) and "When It Gets Dark" (2003).
The books explored early memories – his first haircut and other childhood scenes – with the increasing difficulties he faced as his memory and body began to fail.
"At times melodramatic and maudlin, the books are also poignant, insightful and deeply affecting," Washington Post reporter Fredrick Kunkle wrote in a 2003 profile of Mr. DeBaggio. "Their sometimes repetitive, free-associative structure serves only to amplify their message."
At their most insightful, the books captured Mr. DeBaggio's sprightly sense of humor. "The discipline of the mind crumbles into slogans and short bursts of anger," he wrote in "Losing My Mind." "I should run for president."
The Post closes with a passage that melds his love of plants and his disease:
A passage in "Losing My Mind" noted the supposed healing powers of rosemary bushes and the melancholy Mr. DeBaggio felt as he watched the herb grow in the greenhouse – "splashy blue and subtle white" – on the day he received his diagnosis.
"I was conscious of the plant's long history of medicinal use, an irony that was not lost on me," he wrote. "It was said that rosemary was for remembrance."