A Story of Alzheimer's. A Story of Triumph


Every generation has had to deal with its own demons and experience its own fears. When I was young, polio was the scourge of the nation. Every mother, every father, every child felt a disturbing dread and chill when faced with the prospect of death or, even worse, being imprisoned in an iron lung. Even the survivors suffered.

Now that I am older, we glance over our shoulders and worry about Alzheimer’s as though it were a deadly shadow stalking us, relentlessly trailing after us as the years reach out and beckon us with a bony finger on toward an age and a time that are both foreign and unfamiliar.

We don’t like it, but we can accept death.

What we fear is the unknown, the possibility that our mind can be stolen from our body, leaving us we shattered and fragmented memories and, after a time, throwing away those memories as well.

Most of us, at one or another, have stared at Alzheimer’s face to face. I looked into the eyes of my mother – eyes that had been bright, lively, inquisitive, and green – and she was no longer looking back.

Something had turned off the switch.

The light was gone.

My mother had been one of the smartest women I ever knew. She was self-educated, possessed the most beautiful handwriting I had ever seen, and read every spare minute she had in the day and night. She had a favorite genre of books on a certain wall in the library, and I checked out book after book until she had finished the wall.

She never looked for another wall. She simply started over again. She liked the book the first time. It stood to reason that she would like it a second time. And she did.

Because of her, I have always wondered if – deep within the soul of someone affected by Alzheimer’s – the same old fire and energy and curiosity still burned brightly. The brain may have been short-circuited, but did a person’s spirit and ambition, though suffocated, exist as they always had?

It does in Stephen Woodfin’s beautifully written novel, The Sickle’s Compass. It’s a thriller, to be sure. It is, in fact, a legal thriller. The plot happens to be triggered and fueled by Alzheimer’s, but The Sickle’s Compass is not a book about Alzheimer’s.

It is a story of man’s triumph over Alzheimer’s, of his ability to dig down deep inside of himself and fight one last great battle against forces he does not understand.

The disease may be dimming his mind. But the power of love drives him onward.

Woody Wilson was a member of the Greatest Generation. He fought and won a war. He had survived the Battle of the Bulge. He and the soldiers around him had battled with courage and determination to rid the world of a mad man. He was not the kind of man to give up or quit when the odds were stacked against him.

Woodfin wrote: Woody Wilson, free for a while from the constraints of his otherwise shackled brain, stalked the Ardennes in search of German werewolves, the lone assassins who slit the throats of GIs with long field knives while they stood guard at night in the frozen forest. He positioned himself next a tree and waited. In a moment, he heard a crack as the assassin stepped on a branch, a branch the other end of which was lodged under Woody’s boot. Woody held his breath, clenched his rifle next to him, prepared to ram the butt of the stock into the killer’s chest.

Just before Woody started to lunge, he heard the snow crackle under the feet of the werewolf as he moved away from the trunk of a tree. The sound of his footballs faded into the icy wind until they fell silent. Woody counted to a thousand before he dared to peak around the other side of the tree. He saw the footprints as they trailed away toward another GI sentry somewhere in the lost wood.

Woody had felt death breathe on the snow around him.

He had experienced danger before.

Now he was on the run, on his own, out to see the world one last time, and ready to tackle whatever troubles life had to throw his way, and the troubles attacked him from both sides. No one knew where Woody had gone. Neither did he.

Woody found himself in jail in the midst of a failed judicial system that was anything but fair. He had the good fortune to find a crusty old maverick of an attorney named Pygathoras Clemons, better known as Thag. “He plopped his wide seventy-eight-year-old ass down in the rolling chair behind his desk and surveyed the stacks of files that covered every square inch of the desk top. He tamped a Camel non-filtered cigarette from the package and lit the end of it with a wooden kitchen match. He smoked it down to nub and crushed it out in the metal ash tray he hadn’t emptied in two week.” That’s Thag. That’s Thag’s office. You’ll never forget the image of either one.

Working to free Woody and do the best he could to keep the old gentleman out of trouble was a Nashville police lieutenant, Shot Glass Reynolds. “His six-feet-two inch frame carried 225 pounds of muscle trimmed with a donut of fat around his mid-section lopped over his belt even if he held his stomach in when he walked. His brown hair had streaks of gray that accented the wrinkles on his forehead and the bags under his eyes. The top marksman in the department for fifteen years running, he had noticed in the last two months a tremor that crept into his hand as he tried to hold the heavy pistol steady, a tremor that made any shot a challenge, especially shots made under the pressure of life and death situations.” That’s Shot Glass. You’ll never forget Shot Glass.

While the police, Woody’s wife of sixty years, and his only son search for him, a diabolical mystery man from Woody’s past tracks the old gentleman down and kidnaps him.

Woody may not be able to free himself from the maze in his mind, but he manages to escape his captor only to find himself trapped in a criminal justice system gone haywire. He has done nothing. But he can’t prove it and is facing an automatic life sentence.

His freedom and his life are in the unsteady hands of Thag and Shot Glass. Thrown into events he neither controls nor understands, Woody demonstrates in his last heroic battle the depth of his inner resolve never to fail those he loves.

As one reviewer wrote: “The characters are rich, complete and painted with clarity. The story is heartwarming and edifying. And Woodfin’s understanding of the Alzheimer’s disease is deep and well-portrayed. The Sickle’s Compass is an excellent, uplifting story.”

Woody’s mind had deserted him. But the spirit remained. Somehow I believe that it always does.

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