Brain in a Jar: A Daughter’s Journey Through Her Father’s Memory

I recently took a good, hard look at myself in the mirror. My eyelids are beginning to sag over my blue eyes. My ruddy sun-damaged skin is going slack around my ears. I have a lone freckle on my plump bottom lip.

“Hi Dad,” I said to my 47-year-old reflection. “I’d recognize you anywhere.”

Long before my father died of complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease, people frequently remarked on our similar appearance. I usually fought back against the allegation.

“How can a little girl look exactly like a grown man?” I’d say with my hands on my slender hips—unconsciously imitating my father’s own determined stance.

But our physical resemblance and character traits were undeniable: long-armed, big-lipped, blue-eyed, loose-jointed, freckle-skinned, angst-ridden Bercaws. Except for our male and female chromosomes, nearly everything about us was a perfect match.

Yet I always felt like my own person. Even at a young age, I preferred stories to science. I wanted to write books; he wanted to cure diseases.

We weren’t exactly the same.

My dad, Dr. Beauregard Lee Bercaw, decided to become a neurologist after watching his own father—the accidental curator of this gene pool—succumb to Alzheimer’s. My dad feared that because he looked just like his dad, the disease would come for him too.

So great was his worry that Dr. Bercaw kept grandfather’s autopsied brain in a jar at the center of his office desk. Consequently, grandpa’s grey matter and my dad’s macabre dread became the center of my childhood universe.

“Use your head for something other than a hat rack,” I heard repeatedly in my youth, because lazy thinking was the staunch enemy of any Bercaw. My dad hoped that he could ward off AD by constantly trying to improve his mind, and mine. He paid me to read books one summer in high school when I asked if I could work at McDonald’s.

I had my own Merck Manual by age 10. I learned the Heimlich maneuver from Dr. Heimlich himself. Meanwhile, my father got a second mortgage on our house to buy the first CT scanner in the state of Florida.

As my father approached middle age he began to experiment on himself, with diet supplements. By age 60 he was taking 78 tablets a day. He tracked down anything that offered the possibility of saving brain cells and killing free radicals: Omega 3s, 6s, 9s; vitamins E and C; ginkgo biloba, rosemary and sage; folic acid; flaxseed.

This was in 1999, mind you, long before herbal supplements were household words. Dr. Bercaw also eschewed sugar and alcohol. He played tennis three times a week. He scolded me when he saw sodium laureth sulfate listed as an ingredient in one of my shampoo bottles. 

After retiring from his neurology practice, my dad turned his full attention to math puzzles. Even when I was visiting, he’d sit silently on his leather recliner with a calculator to verify the accuracy of computations he did by memory. I quietly wished that he would talk to me.

Be careful what you wish for, he’d warned me many times. As if to clarify the point, dad looked up from his Sudoko game once to say, “Promise that you’ll put a gun to my head if I turn out like my father.”

I didn’t kill my dad. Instead, I watched helplessly as he declined into the disease he’d heard coming like a Doppler effect. Dr. Bercaw spent the last 18 months of his life in a memory care facility until a Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection ravaged what was left of him.

Beau died on April 2, 2012, a month before his 74th birthday—the same age at which his own father passed away.

I’ve been seeing a lot of my dad again lately. And not just in the mirror. He comes to mind whenever I forget to take my anti-depressant medication. Or when a name escapes me. Worse yet, when I witness my nine-year-old son acting like a Bercaw.

I wonder what I might find if I could look behind my face into my brain. Amyloid-beta plaques settling into my shrinking cerebrum? Neurofibers tangled with tau protein? Proof I am the next Bercaw up to bat for Alzheimer’s disease?

My father believed I was. For my 35th birthday, he surprised me with the genetic test for the APOE marker, which can indicate a predisposed genetic risk for Alzheimer’s. APOE-2 is relatively rare and may even provide some protection against the disease. APOE-3 is the most common and appears to have a neutral role. APOE-4 indicates the highest risk factor.

Like my father I carry the APOE-3 gene, which means I may or may not get the disease.

But he did get AD—and he believed I would too. Regardless of our indeterminate test results, he inferred that Bercaws and Alzheimer’s are part of the same double helix.

Still, I can choose not to be like my father.  I may have inherited his genes, but I can decide not to share his obsession. I don’t want to spend the second half of my time on Earth worrying about whether or not I’m going to get Alzheimer’s disease.

I’d rather see every inch of the Earth instead. My visits to the Taj Mahal, Pyramids and Angkor Wat are forever a part of me. Lately, the Panama Canal and the Galapagos beckon.

I want to show my son what’s worth living for—and the answer isn’t math. Life is measured in love, not in brain mass. The only thing in this world that’s worth remembering: It’s the heart that belongs in a jar.

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