(Erin Otwell / The Free Press)

The Winner of Our Senior Essay Contest: A Love Song for Deborah

After my wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I nearly gave in to despair. Until I found the one thing that awakened her.

Over 400 readers entered our second-ever Free Press Essay contest, where we asked those over 70 to tell us about a pivotal time in their life—and the wisdom they gleaned from it. We received essays from 47 states and 10 countries, including from writers in Italy, South Africa, and China. We were blown away.

It took many weeks, and more than a few editors debating late into the night, to whittle down the pile. 

Yesterday, you heard from our runners-up: Cheri Block Sabraw, 73, wrote movingly about learning the virtue of patience; Jonathan Rosenberg, 72, reflected on his five marriages over as many decades; and Joan McCaul, 74, described learning how to appreciate nature from her young son. 

Today, we bring you our winner: Michael Tobin, 77, who writes from Israel.

Michael is a psychologist. He is also the proud father of four and grandfather of eighteen. But the subject of his essay is his wife, Deborah.

We asked Michael to read his essay along with Ruby LaRocca, the winner of our teen contest earlier this year, for a special episode of Honestly. To listen to their stories of teenage happiness and senior wisdom from two people 60 years apart, click below:

If life were fair, Alzheimer’s should never have eaten Deborah’s brain.

My wife had no family history of the disease. All four of her Lebanese grandparents lived far into their nineties and were as acerbic, argumentative, and quick-witted at ninety-five as they were at twenty-five. 

But Alzheimer’s devoured my wife, my best friend, my soul mate. Gone is the compassionate psychologist who graduated from Wellesley, MIT, and the Sorbonne. The polymath fluent in five languages who could calculate complex mathematical formulas in her head and whose brain came with its own GPS. The woman whose body could contort into pretzel-like yoga postures with the ease and grace of a ballerina. The truth-seeker who had an uncanny ability to pierce through layers of psychic sludge to unearth a soul in all its shining glory. 

Diagnosed in November 2018, she had won a very perverse lottery.

Our wake-up call came one month earlier, on a late morning in our favorite café. I was sitting with Deborah, three of our four children, their spouses, and seven of our thirteen grandchildren when an old friend, Hannah, approached the table. She asked Deborah and me about our recent trek to Everest Base Camp. 

I answered with a few words like freezing, tough, amazing

Deborah said nothing. I noticed a faraway look in her eyes. 

When Hannah left, I asked Deborah if she was okay. 

“Who was that woman?” she replied.

It was a terrifying question when asked about Hannah, a woman she had known for thirty-two years—a woman with whom she vacationed and shared an office.

Until then, I hadn’t wanted to see the obvious. 

For the previous year, Deborah had been uncharacteristically agreeable and far too mellow. I began to long for her confrontations—those moments when she’d stare me down with her intense green eyes and awaken me with some unpleasant truth about myself.

Two years earlier, she caught me sucking in my stomach. Matter-of-factly she said, “Who are you kidding, Michael? You’re fat.” No sweet equivocations. Just straight to the point. 

I was furious. Two months later, I was fifteen pounds lighter. 

Then there was the binge-watching. When I would ask, “Why so much TV?” her answer was invariably, “I need to relax.” 

This was not my Deborah. My Deborah relaxed by creating videos, fixing broken electrical appliances, trekking to high places, meditating, performing one hundred and eight salutations to the sun. 

And soon after, her rich, descriptive vocabulary slowly ebbed away. 

Two years earlier, she had given a presentation to five hundred psychologists, demonstrating how to transform the language of passivity and hopelessness into the active words of therapeutic change. 

Now, a complex situation filled with multiple variables—an act of terror, an overdue bill, a broken marriage—became, in her words, “A mess.” I cringed the moment the word slipped from her lips. 

And, of course, there was her memory. In the months leading up to that October morning, she had mixed up our grandchildren’s names. And what should have been the most startling wake-up call of all: she watched movies she’d seen as recently as the previous day, convinced that she had never seen them before. 

The first stage of grief is denial. 

I was no stranger to Alzheimer’s. From 1982 to 1985, I had worked as a psychologist on the geriatric ward of Boston’s Hahnemann Hospital where I watched, helplessly, as this insidious disease ravaged beautiful minds. 

But when Deborah was diagnosed, neither my heart nor my mind could make space for this harsh reality. One that would eventually disrupt the remaining years of our life together.

When the neurologist turned to her and said, “I’m sorry, you have Alzheimer’s,” she nodded dispassionately as if she’d known for weeks. In a process that takes months—if not years—she had skipped the first four of Kübler-Ross’s stages and gone straight to acceptance. “It is what it is,” she said, looking directly into my eyes. “We’ll deal with it like we’ve dealt with everything else.” 

“No!” I said loudly. “We’re not giving in to this fucking disease.”

I was seventy-two years old at the time. Deborah was sixty-nine. Forty-four years earlier we had collided on a dance floor. Back then, for some crazy reason I still don’t understand, I glared at the raven-haired beauty who bumped into me and then gave her the finger. 

She stared back, fearlessly. Then a smile broke across her lips. “You have a strange way of picking up a girl.”

We laughed. It wasn’t your typical introduction. But nothing was typical about our relationship. That night we danced with each other as if we had always known the other’s moves.

There was simply too much at stake for me to give in to Alzheimer’s or to give up on Deborah.

As a psychologist, I’m a professional problem solver. I search for answers, for elusive solutions, for the anomaly at the tail end of a bell curve.

It turns out that anomalies reside in every corner of the internet. I read about a man who couldn’t remember any of his grandchildren and then after six days of downing a turmeric, apple cider vinegar, and lemon juice cocktail, he counted backward—flawlessly—by sevens from 100 to 2. He then called all six of his grandchildren by their correct names. 

So, we tried all that: cocktails to jog her memory, herbs to rejuvenate neurons, supplements for igniting synapses, a low-carb diet to make the sticky white stuff suffocating her brain dissolve, exercises to resuscitate the hippocampus. All the while, Deborah watched the same movie day after day as if it were the first time.

Why?” I asked. 

“Because it’s complex,” she answered. 

The Hangover is complex?” 

“Yeah, they can’t find that guy.”

“What guy?” I asked.

“You know, that guy,” she answered.

Nothing worked. Deborah’s Alzheimer’s didn’t bow before the internet’s ambitious promise to eliminate the disease through intermittent fasting, macadamia nuts, salmon, and kale. No amount of omega-3 or lion’s mane could stop its relentless death march. Like the creeping flow of lava, the deadly white amyloid plaques, neurofibrillary tangles, and uncontrolled surge of glial cells powered through the cracks and the crevices destroying Deborah’s lovely walnut-shaped cerebral cortex where her memory and identity once resided.

Prudence said we should continue with donepezil, a drug that stimulates a neurotransmitter associated with the storage and retrieval of memory. It helped—minimally—she still remembered to call me Michael, but all thirteen grandchildren became a cacophony of nameless and faceless noise machines babbling in Hebrew, a language she once spoke well but now dribbled from her mouth as an amalgam of pidgin French, Swedish, and English.

Walks helped. In fact, walking is the only scientifically proven method to slow down—not stop or eliminate, merely prolong—the progression of the illness. 

It is said that rage is the last act of the incompetent—a powerfully empty emotion that feeds on helplessness and despair. I was sinking into it. I wanted to scream, hit, or break something or someone. But who? But what? A heartless disease? The medical profession? My helplessness?

My friends were worried about me. One suggested I write, so I did. And what emerged surprised me. 

It was a hint of a story—far more one of healing than of giving voice to the dark side of fury and hopelessness. In my mind, I composed a love song to Deborah.  

That love song became a book titled Riding the Edge: A Love Song to Deborah. It is a testimonial to the most extraordinary person I’ve known and a memoir about our not-quite around-the-world bicycle odyssey that took place over a six-month period in 1980. 

After I completed each chapter, I read it out loud to Deborah. I followed her eyes, her expressions, her gestures, anything that would indicate that she was present with the story. 

In Paris, we had a serendipitous encounter with a Dutch Jew who told his tale of tragedy and loss in the Nazi death camps. Tears flowed down her cheeks as I read to her the story of his fifty family members who died in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor. 

When I read sections recalling our struggles pedaling up the Alps then our delights soaring down, I sensed an imperceptible movement in her leg, almost like she was shaking loose an old memory. 

We held hands in the safety of our living room as I read the chapter about how Mahmoud drove like a lunatic through the bombs and bullets of Beirut. 

“Can you believe we actually did this?” she exclaimed. 

“Do you remember why we went to Lebanon?” I asked. I could see from the movement of her eyes that she was searching for an answer. 

“Should I help?” I asked. 

“No,” she answered. A minute passed, then her eyes widened and she said, “Because I had family there.” 

“Yes, because you had family there.” 

It’s now been more than five years since our wake-up call. Deborah’s past has slipped from consciousness. Her future is no longer hers to shape, but together we still own the present. I know it from her eyes; I can see it when she smiles; I can feel it when she reaches for my hand and says, “I love you.” 

I’m no longer in denial. I don’t rage against the unfairness of it all. Grief hasn’t crippled me. I search for love and connection in small ways because a moment of connection is to be alive.

And to be alive with Deborah—with Alzheimer’s—is to arrive at the tail end of the curve.

Michael Tobin, 77, is a psychologist and writer living in Israel.  

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