I ping-pong therefore I am
By Daniel Sher
The game of Ping-pong is a joke: simplistic, pointless, boring. Then again, any good nihilist will remind you that life itself is equally repetitive and futile. Maybe I’m just a bit of an elitist, but I’d rather manage my existential angst through more enlivening mediums, such as art, debate, reflection and meditation.
So one can understand my sense of disappointment when she took my hand and led me straight to the damn ping-pong table. My heart fell, although perhaps it shouldn’t have: it’s not like our relationship could have become much more drained of substance and connection than it had over the past year, during which time we had done little more than share lunches and watch movies.
Alzheimer ’s disease is a marauding thief. It steals your memories, your capacity to think, talk and function socially. It robs you of your identity and it makes you forget the names of those closest to you. It tests your relationships to their limits.
Our conversations of late had become painfully forced, shallow and uncomfortable. She faltered and failed whilst trying to respond to simple questions about the weather and her breakfast; she became embarrassed by her incapacity to choose an item on the menu and to understand the difference between a main-course and a cocktail.
She had forged her place in this world as an academic, a teacher, a brilliant thinker and an intellectual. But now this was all slipping away and she was left incoherent and ashamed, seeking to connect but unable to access the intelligence and eloquence that had once defined her identity. For both of us, the movie always came as a welcome but deadening respite. Relieved of our painful obligation to try to make conversation, we would sit in the darkness. We were simply going through the motions of a relationship and whilst sitting side-by-side we were drifting further and further apart.
And so I knocked the ping-pong ball into her court. She, somewhat skillfully, returned it, again and again. She may have forgotten the sort of back-and-forth action required in making a healthy conversation, but we could sure as hell knock that stupid little ball across the table for as long as we liked. And with this the awkwardness and pressure to make conversation soon started to evaporate, quickly replaced with a sense of ease and enjoyment that we had previously when in each other’s company. For a moment, it was as if the erosion of her brain had actually changed very little in terms of our relationship: each serve and return brought us closer, reaffirming the sense of connectedness and engagement that we had shared throughout our lives.
Right in the beginning, when I had lain in her arms as a pre-verbal infant, we had also related without speaking. Oblivious to her words, I would instead have been soothed by her vocal inflections, enlivened by the warmth of her body and comforted by her maternal gaze. For a while things had changed and our relationship had blossomed around a shared appreciation of art and literature; on long conversations and subtle jokes. Now, as the disease attacked her capacity to think, we had had to revert to a more basic and primal way of relating; but the connection was as strong as it had ever been.
I still think that ping-pong is waste of time. And yet this story reminds us that Descartes might not have known what he was talking about. Our humanity is not defined by our capacity to think, but by our capacity to relate. And this is why even people with the most severe of intellectual disabilities – even those who cannot feed, clean or wash themselves – even they cannot and must not be seen as subhuman in any way. Because a human relationship is so much more powerful, primal and mystical than merely a meeting of two fully-functioning human minds.
Daniel Sher, is a 26 years old, living and working in Cape Town as a clinical psychologist. I’m also a carer for my mom, who has Alzheimer’s; and when I’m not caring or working I love to read, surf, run and meditate! Feel free to contact me on danielsher89@Hotmail.com