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How are you?

Ontmoeting in het straatbeeld
The most annoying question anyone could ask me is: “How are you?” Well-meant as it may be, it is still unpleasant when someone asks me that. Questions pop up in my head like “what does he mean?”, “does he know I have Alzheimer’s?”, or “does he belong to the group of people that doesn’t know?”, and also: “Shall I answer him at all?” If he belongs to the group that doesn’t know, it might be better to say something meaningless like “okay” or, when you’re feeling down, “I got a bit of a headache”. Be that as it may, giving an adequate answer is tricky. Some people take it one step further and say: “Everything alright, Jacques?” A rather chilly response is usually what they get from me, like “well, everything.. that’s a bit much.” Recently, I came across a perfect answer in our local paper. 

A journalist was interviewing Mr Van der Haar, former president on the board of the entrepreneurs organisation VNO-NCW Noord, and he started off by saying: “Everything alright, Bert?” Van der Haar replied with “that would really be unfortunate.” Good answer, I am thinking. I am even a little jealous that I didn’t think of that response myself. Arguably, it is quite similar to my own response of “well, everything.. that’s a bit much”, but Van der Haar’s answer effortlessly excuses him from the burden to conjure up an adequate answer. The journalist will be taken aback and hopefully he will decide not to comment any further and change the subject. Should he choose not to do so, it will become very uncomfortable and I think that serves him right. Who in their right mind says “everything alright?” to someone who is seriously ill? 

This game of questions and answers, though we can hardly call it a game, becomes much more pleasant when the interviewer illustrates his question by saying, for instance: “We don’t really notice anything different about you. You don’t falter when you speak, you don’t need more time to think about what you’re going to say.” But still, even then you feel the need to defend yourself, as if you must prove that things are not going as well for you as people obviously suspect. As if you are obligated to give examples demonstrating what’s really going on.  Well okay then, here are some examples. They are accurate descriptions of the type of problems every Alzheimer’s patient is confronted with. I’ll summarize them as: 

Losing, forgetting and despairing

Since the earliest stages of my disease, I have lost at least 3 pairs of reading glasses and 2 cell phones by leaving them somewhere and not being able to find them again. The frustration I feel when I am searching for them is enormous. You absolutely lose yourself and spiral into self-criticism. Every nook and cranny is searched. Your housemates, who haven’t got a clue where the object can be, make all kinds of suggestions too. The best solution is probably to forget the whole thing, which should be easy for someone in my position, but unfortunately it isn’t.  Also, my weekly appointment with Peter, my physiotherapist, has (almost) slipped my mind about 8 or 10 times. Peter has the patience of a saint. He hasn’t so much as frowned at my inattention.  

And what about all that headgear I left behind on unnamed hatstands. Last winter I lost my rather expensive hat, much to my wife’s chagrin, as we had purchased it in Paris. My computer skills are not improving either, indeed, solving computer problems cost me a great deal of money lately. Six months ago our banking affairs demanded that I install the operating system of Windows 7. That clearly was a mistake. It took me several months to make sense of the new system and in the mean time I spent a lot of euros. It drove me crazy. It took a while, but now I feel I have everything under control again.  

Being a diabetic I have to inject myself with insulin four times a day. Many, many times, I have forgotten to inject the necessary amount of insulin before I eat or before I go to bed. “My” internist at the hospital urged me several times to get myself a suitable cell phone with a built-in alarm function. I did that some weeks ago, but I often leave it at home for fear of losing it.  And last but not least, the last few years I repeatedly forgot to fill in my quarterly VAT documents and send them to the tax authorities.. To date, the incurred fines have not been collected by the tax inspector. However, I did have to agree to a warning system involving my daughter. Hopefully she doesn’t forget to call me when the time comes..

Obviously, you will understand that sometimes it’s like a labyrinth in my head and that being asked “how are you?” can be rather annoying. In future, when someone asks me “how are you?”, I will respond by saying: “are you kidding me?” 


Jacques Boersma