There’s a scene in the 2014 documentary “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” that goes something like this:
Campbell, the faded country-crossover musician battling Alzheimer’s disease, is in the doctor’s office for a checkup. The doctor asks him to wiggle his fingers like he’s playing the piano, to which Campbell retorts, “but I’m a guitar player.”
Somehow, through the fog of Alzheimer’s, a lucid, wise-cracking Campbell sparkles with trademark Southern sass, right down to the folksy pronunciation of “GIH-tar.” And then just as quickly, the fog returns.
It was a phenomenon with which I was familiar, having watched my father spend his final years succumbing to Alzheimer’s, only to fire the occasional spark of humor or recollection. For anyone desperately hoping to see the return of the person they knew, it’s easy to be seduced by notions of an unexplained reversal, or perhaps a miraculous misdiagnosis. But my siblings and I knew the diagnosis to be correct, and we also knew there was no reversing the course of this disease.
I was in the doctor’s office with my dad when the diagnosis came. It was matter-of-fact, even cold, considering the weight of such news. Dad took it with puzzled acceptance and his trademark good cheer. I’ll never know whether he really understood the implications. I didn’t ask. It would be devastating to process, and he could be excused for shrugging it off the way he would a poor glucose test. Shortly after the doctor’s visit, we had lunch at his favorite diner, the “dad jokes” flying fast and furious. I wasn’t in a laughing mood, but even then, he scored a couple of direct hits that had me cracking up. For a moment the old Dad sparkled, and for a moment I entertained notions of a reversal or misdiagnosis.
“I’ll Be Me” features an eerily similar doctor’s visit for Campbell, who meets the presentation of MR scans and medical mumbo jumbo with the too-eager “uh-huhs” and “oh yeahs” of a student in biology class. Like my dad, he didn’t show it, but I suspect he knew what all of it meant. And yet, he responded by launching a last hurrah tour and agreeing to have filmmakers document it. The burning question is why?
His reasons weren’t clear to me, but perhaps Campbell wanted to give Alzheimer’s a face. Not just one face, but many faces — the sufferer, his family, friends or anyone else affected by the robbing of a person’s mind in the most brutal and heartless way imaginable. The film doesn’t sugarcoat the increasing difficulties Campbell has with touring, and the accompanying headaches his family navigates in managing their erratic headliner. There are some very uncomfortable moments in “I’ll Be Me,” and I struggled with the family’s insistence on going forward with a tour that reduced this once-great performer to a lost, confused, occasionally angry high-wire circus act robbed of his most important remaining possession — his dignity. I had to take it on faith that the entire venture, while endlessly skirting disaster, was in accordance with Campbell’s wishes.
When Glen Campbell died last week at the age of 81, I immediately thought of “I’ll Be Me.” I was aware of his tremendous musical legacy, beginning with his early days as a Beach Boys fill-in before breaking through with solo hits like “Wichita Lineman” and “Gentle on My Mind.” His defining “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a radio staple during my youth, made him a bona fide pop star, but it wasn’t until later that I discovered what a marvelous GIH-tar player Campbell was. And yet, it was “I’ll Be Me” that gave real meaning to his death. I felt not only grief but relief at the peace that had finally come to him and his family.
Performing artists succeed as pop stars because of their ability to effectively convey common themes. Through their expression of universal emotions, we feel less alone, and that’s why we listen to them. Before I watched “I’ll Be Me,” I stupidly regarded our family’s experience with our dad as somehow unique, a bizarre and embarrassing dysfunction that outsiders couldn’t comprehend. The film was a revelation, and perhaps that answers the “why” that nagged me as I began to recognize so much of my father on the screen. Campbell was conveying — in fact demonstrating — an experience that’s more universal than any of us imagined, and most importantly, true to his chosen vocation, by sharing his pain and loss, he made me feel less alone in mine.