Monday, February 15, 2016

Uncle Lawrence and Alzheimer's



I had three uncles: my mom's brother and my dad's younger twin brothers. My favorite was Uncle Lawrence, the youngest of my dad's brothers albeit by only a few minutes. He was exceedingly energetic and endlessly positive. Not only did he work 40 to 50 hours as a journeyman electrician, but he would clean the house, do the laundry, cook the meals, do the dishes, wash the floors, and maintain the house. I am afraid this, however, became a problem for his daughters when they married. Each of them, I suspect, expected their husbands to be like the father. That was not going to happen. They have all been divorced.

When he would come to visit us at our home, unbidden, he would begin to repair things around our house much better than my father would ever could have done so. He was always happy to see me, welcomed me with open arms and wanted to know about my life. Nevertheless, he was given to fits of inexplicable anger out of character with the rest of his life.

On December 8, 1941, my Uncle Lawrence volunteered for the United States Navy. He served on two carriers, the USS Princeton and the USS Wasp both of which were sunk. Being a quartermaster, he was below decks both times and escaped. Family lore has it that my grandmother received two missing in action reports regarding him. The Wasp, off Guadalcanal, was hit by three torpedoes launched by a Japanese submarine, setting off gasoline fires, leaving the ship a blazing wreck. According to my uncle, he was in the compartment next to one that was hit and told me if that torpedo had been 20 feet in another direction I would not have been talking to him. The Princeton was sunk at Leyte Gulf after being struck by a bomb. When my son and I watched the episode regarding Leyte Gulf in the documentary Victory at Sea[1], I told him to watch carefully and perhaps we could see Uncle Lawrence's ship blowup. Indeed towards the end of the episode there was film of the Princeton exploding, causing the death of more than 200 sailors on the USS Birmingham, which was alongside the carrier to help fight fires. During both episodes, according to my uncle, he spent several hours in the "drink". Luckily he was the best swimmer of the three brothers.

The disease of anti-Semitism, which was rampant in the world in the period between the world wars, even infected the United States. My father described to me that whenever our family moved to a new neighborhood he would face anti-Semitic insults and physical abuse. As long as he fought back with his fists, win or lose, he was left alone. Thank God this was in the era when gangs used their fists, one on one, not ten on one or guns. Needless to say, Big Brother Jack, my father, had to defend his little brothers.

My Uncle Lawrence in his later years developed Alzheimer's disease. When I would come to visit him, I saw abject terror and fear on his face. Imagine, there you are, in a room you do not recognize, with people you do not recognize, discussing issues that you do not recognize but they seem to know you. On the other hand, perhaps he was recalling those minutes/hours of abject terror in those great seemingly invulnerable and indestructible and unconquerable wombs of steel, when he had to run up in pitch blackness metal ladder after metal ladder, all the while listening to the screams of the wounded and dying, his friends whom he could not help, to the flight deck, and only then to find himself in the relative safety of the cruel sea swimming for hours in what he assumed were shark-infested waters, watching his home sink beneath the waves. Did he have survivors guilt? Did he remember a shipmate whom, perhaps, he could have helped?

Towards the end of his life, I came to visit him in a nursing home. As I walked into the room, my aunt, his wife, in her inimitable Skokie accent[2], said "Stevie's here (all of my older relatives with whom I am close call me Stevie). You know, Jack's son". At the mention of the word Jack, the terror melted from his face, replaced by a calm beatific smile, and he said with great joy in his voice the single word "Jack". In his mind's eye, I was his Big Brother Jack. His Big Brother Jack who was handsome. His Big Brother Jack who was smart. His Big Brother Jack who was a good athlete. His Big Brother Jack who was his mother's favorite. His Big Brother Jack who was always there for him and would defend against the thugs of his youth. For that moment, he felt completely  and totally safe. I never saw him again.

[1] Victory at Sea, March 15, 1953, 23:09-24:00. This documentary, made by NBC, is of the caliber of an art-house documentary. Richard Rogers wrote the music and the quality of the editing is remarkable. I always find it interesting that an art form, TV in this case, usually has its best work at its inception. I strongly recommend to take a look at it.
[2] Skokie, Illinois. Denizens of very northern Chicago and Skokie have a very distinctive accent, very Yiddish-influenced, and more pronounced among the women.


  1. Hannah - What a powerful and beautiful post. Thank you for sharing your story. You gave your uncle such a precious gift.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment. I started this blog for my now-deceased wife almost five years ago. She was a far better writer than I.