When a lifelong pianist’s memory fades

From The Week, written by Tom Hallman — image courtesy of Beth Nakamura

All his life, Steve Goodwin had been a private man. No matter the circumstances, he’d say he was doing just fine. But as he sat in his Wilsonville, Oregon, home that Monday morning, he wasn’t fine.

Over the weekend, he’d argued with his youngest daughter, Melissa. The blowup ended when his daughter, tears in her eyes, opened the front door of her home and told him to leave.

As is the case in all families, they’d had minor disagreements before. But Saturday’s battle had been raw. Steve knew he needed to set things straight. It was time to reveal his secret.

His wife, Joni, called Melissa, who lived three blocks away. After she arrived, they gathered in the living room and made small talk. Then, from a shirt pocket, Steve pulled out his handwritten notes.

Mom and I saw a neurologist. I have a spot in my brain. I am being honest. If this progresses into Alzheimer’s, I know what it is like. I saw my mom. I experienced the pain of her personality changing, her being unkind to me and saying hurtful things.

If I ever do or say anything hurtful, I want you to know that I am sorry. No matter what I do and say, you are my little girl and I love you.

Extensive tests revealed that Steve, then 65, had early-onset Alzheimer’s, a disease passed genetically from his mother. By the time his mother died, at age 74, she spent her days, in silence, staring out a window. She didn’t recognize her son. Once an accomplished musician, she didn’t know what to do with a piano.

Now, it was his turn. A grim fear took hold within Steve.

The disease, Melissa knew, would block out all her father had ever been. Her father’s essence was his music, the soundtrack to her life. She’d taken it for granted. And now the music was dying.

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