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The Marshall Plan: A thief of dreams and memories

There from the comfort of my favorite chair the Academy of Motion Picture Awards droned on, bathing my living room in that cool media glow that home theaters create. I had no rooting interest in most of the nominated films. To be honest, I hadn’t even watched most of the nominees.

Then amid my passive viewing something decidedly uncomfortable intercepted my emotions as I watched Tim McGraw’s performance of Glen Campbell’s nominated song, "I'm Not Gonna Miss You."

The legendary sing/songwriter who had written personal favorites such as “Galveston” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” was unable to perform his song due to failing health from Alzheimer’s disease.
McGraw was selected by Campbell’s family to perform.

Turns out that Campbell had written the song as a lyrical tribute to his family in the midst of battle --- a battle taking place within his brain. Upon further research, I learned that this was in all likelihood the legendary songwriter’s final song. It was written and recorded for his 2014 documentary, Glen Campbell…I'll Be Me.

A second moment came during actress Julianne Moore’s acceptance speech for Best Actress and the accompanying trailers for her film titled “Still Alice.” The film tells the story of a 50-year-old Harvard linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease.

The song and speech focused on the ravages of a disease that disassembles the mind. In those two moments I thought about how this disease had touched the lives of nearly every person I know.
No family is immune from this disease.

Reflecting on my life, I recalled how it took my beloved great-grandfather away from me.

He was the man that had been the center of my family and my most cherished elder as a child. The man who could play ragtime with a bass line so potent it could make anyone dance to the Maple Leaf Rag.

He was my great-grandfather Walter T. Phieffer, who had the strongest, yet gentlest hands, who taught me how to peel an apple with a pen-knife and soothed my fears when my father was fighting in Vietnam.

I used to lay under his piano for hours watching the gears and wires move to the rhythm of his songs. I remember the kind twinkle in his eyes, the same color blue as a Robin’s egg. I recall the winning strategies of his chess games, his love for knowledge and business.

He had survived the Great Depression and was still fit and sharp into his 90s---but then a thief of a disease arrived to slowly steal him away from himself.

At times he said things that did not make sense. He forgot when he ate and felt people were plotting against him. At times his words hurt us, but we knew it was the disease and never the person.
His love for music was the last thing to fall. He fought it bravely standing like a little sand castle confronted by a slow yet-relentless tide. He held on to memories as they slipped away, grain-by-grain and note-by-note. He tried with all his will to play the songs he loved---but the keys eventually betrayed him to the great silence.

If I had to pick a song to describe Alzheimer’s it would be “Solace” by Scott Joplin, a favorite of his.

Alzheimer’s stole him from us like a slow, sad, song.

Surprisingly, the Oscars left me confronting memories in the cool blue glow of my television. I thought about so many friends in the Silver Club, who were taken from us by this insidious disease.

There’s real value in memories. In the end, memories are our final movies---unless you have Alzheimer’s.

One of my all-time favorite directors, Orson Welles once said, “A film is a ribbon of dreams. The camera is much more than a recording apparatus; it is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret. Here magic begins.”

This has always been true for me. Sometimes an escape from reality, leads us back to it.

Marshall Conner is a freelance contributor with the Culpeper Times. You may reach him at kelpiescot@gmail.com


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