*Primary Progressive Aphasia, a degeneration of the part of the brain that affects speech.

Monday, July 9, 2012


Tommy and I are on a subway platform in the Loop waiting for the Blue Line to take us home. I’m leaning on a metal column and peering down the track to spot the headlights of the next westward bound train.

My husband has positioned himself on the opposite side and selected his own pillar for support. His eyes are riveted on a pair of musicians a few feet from me. The male plays a guitar and the woman sings -- a Spanish song, quite lovely and a nice respite from the clang of trains and chatter of waiting passengers.

An open guitar case is at their feet. Some paper bills are already strewn inside from earlier donors, and perhaps the duo has seeded the case to encourage more.

I leave my train-watching to focus on my husband. I stare as his hand reaches into his pocket. I knew this would be coming. His eyes are misting as he pulls out his wallet and extracts a bill, which I’m hoping is one dollar. He  drops it into the guitar case and the duo nods a gracias in his direction.

“Musicians are okay,” I had told him earlier. “But the panhandlers on the corner are scam artists.” I believe this is true, for I’ve seen one on crutches suddenly able-bodied and sauntering from his spot near our house.

My husband obeys this rule. As long as he can drop a bill into a musician’s case, he’s a happy philanthropist.

Since I didn’t know Tommy in his younger days, I can’t attest to his generosity back then. But, because he’s always been frugal, I’m assuming he wasn’t so quick on the draw with street musicians and beggars.

I could be wrong, but I think the new largess is part of his current condition.The frontal lobe of the brain affects emotions and ever since his began to deteriorate, he’s become a softie. Along with his charity, he’s a weeper at sad and happy television shows, and bar mitzvahs and weddings.

When my husband begins to tear up, the celebration hosts are touched. “Such a sensitive man,” I imagine they whisper to one another.

I’ve done a lot of reading about Tommy’s condition and am relieved to learn he has not taken on another emotion that is sometimes linked to the illness: rage. If anything, he has become kinder (witness the charity), more sentimental (the tears), and softer. 

Because he can no longer speak, he doesn't send irritating comments to television commercials, obese strangers, or other innocent targets as I once complained about. I understand now those slurs were the beginning of his brain’s degeneration -- inappropriate responses are a classic symptom. I haven’t explored if these barbs are still in his head; I prefer to think he no longer holds them.

Today in the subway, I say to Tommy, “Honey, please show me what you gave the musicians.”  He opens his wallet and points to a dollar bill. “Good,” I say. “Now be sure to tuck your wallet deep in your pocket."  He does, then pats it for emphasis.

At the end of the line, when we have descended the stairs, a panhandler is at the stoplight near the expressway. He is holding a sign, “Homeless. Need Food” and is limping toward cars that are stopped and waiting for the light to change.

I turn to look at my husband. I see his hand reach for his pocket. “Tommy,” I say. He looks at me, nods his head, and drops his arm at his side. I take his hand in mine as we cross at the Walk sign. My husband glances back and watches the guy continue to hobble dramatically along the cars.

“Fake,” I remind Tommy. He nods his head in agreement. When we reach the other side, I look back and send a silent suggestion to the grifter, Should’ve hummed a few bars.


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