The Because Project asks Vermonters to share their stories about people and experiences that have shaped their lives, especially during their formative years — stories that may inspire others to get involved. Because together we can all make a difference.
Bercaws and Alzheimer's disease are part of the same double helix. When my father was in medical school in the early 1960s, his father began forgetting. Watching my grandfather slowly and steadily lose his faculties solidified my dad's desire to become a neurologist. After Grandfather Bercaw's death in 1971, Beauregard Bercaw, M.D., asked the coroner for his dad's atrophied brain, and then placed it in a jar at the center of his office desk.
With Grandpa's gray matter as compass and crystal ball, my dad raised me to live fearlessly, to fight suffering and to face death.
Beau taught me to swim, at age 5, in an Alabama river strewn with cottonmouth moccasins. He took me, at age 9, to see the "freak show" in Florida — a lesson meant to convey that the people on display weren't the ones trapped by stereotypes. He showed me, at age 10, how to canoe through a lake full of alligators by hitting their snouts with the paddle. He instructed me, at age 12, on how to call for Bigfoot as we hiked through the Puerto Rican rain forest. He paid me, at age 15, to read books all summer long.
In turn, I rewarded Beau's efforts to strengthen my body and my mind.
When he was 45, I pleased him by getting a swimming scholarship to college. When he was 50, I took him on a hair-raising trip through rural Kenya in an old purple Jeep. Throughout his 60s, I wrote him long, detailed letters during my trips to Korea, Thailand, China, Nepal and India. When he was 71 and 72, I visited him in a memory-care facility in Florida. When he was 73, I thanked him for the lessons of a lifetime as he lay dying from complications associated with Alzheimer's disease.
I don't have my father's brain in a jar on my desk. But I do have a memoir about him, called Brain in a Jar, that rests on my coffee table. Because of it, the whole world can see how much he meant to me. And because our jarred-brain journey continues, my son can decide how to be in the event that my voice is lost, too.