Losing her self The facts of Ina Savage's early life stay with her - the travel, the languages, the wit. But her memory of recent events is vanishing as she loses her identity day by day. She is 56 and has Alzheimer's disease.

October 05, 1997|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Ina Savage was walking in Roland Park with members of her new club when she spotted something glittery in the grass. It was a child's toy, discarded in an overgrown schoolyard. Ina reached down and, in a grand sweep, lifted skyward a magic wand.

"I wish for a new brain," she exclaimed.

Members of the Morning Out Club nodded and laughed.

"Don't we all!" someone added.

Like social clubs focused on books or investing, the group Ina belongs to formed because its members share something in common: They expect to die in their prime from an illness that usually strikes the old. Their brains are decaying.

Every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., on a walk to see the tulips, a trip to the zoo, perhaps over a meal in a favorite restaurant, these club members, in their 50s and 60s, find comfort in each other. The club is a refuge from the terror of Alzheimer's disease, a place to mourn what is lost and to prepare for what is to come.

At 56, Ina Savage cuts a striking figure in olive-green cuffed corduroy slacks and a maroon turtleneck sweater, a stylish purse on her shoulder, a scarf around her neck. So when she lets it be known that her clothes are actually 20 years old, she reveals the elegant dresser she once was -- and the fear of becoming disoriented that keeps her from shopping now.

And when she recounts how civilization began in ancient Iraq at the Tigris and Euphrates rivers or summarizes the players in the Crusades or the theme of a classic novel, she displays a mind enriched by books and study -- a mind that remains extraordinary even as it fades.

Over coffee at the club, Ina carries the room the way she once carried the conversation at embassy parties. She brings bits of her life for all to see: linguist, adventurer, wife of an American spy, mother to three daughters, teacher, devotee of history, repository of tales, and since childhood, a great dancer.

"You don't learn to samba," she advises her friends one day, breaking into the dance of her native Brazil. "You just samba."

For Ina, there is comfort in the past. The present, confusion. The future, uncertainty.

When she learned of her disease, her first thought was, "What a wonderful life I've led."

Then, she says, "I remembered the Chinese curse: 'May you have an interesting life.' It usually means there's a war involved."

Ina Savage is waging hers with humor and grace.

A complex life

How was your week?

"I lived through it, I am sure, but I don't remember much."

The club members respond with laughter. But the former diplomat's wife shakes her head, thinking of the busy schedule she once kept.

In Rio, Paris and Buenos Aires, she socialized. Across continents, she moved.

And always, she ran the house. Her mind kept track of children's sports matches, choir lessons, dentist appointments. Never did she write down a telephone number or an address.

It must have been exhausting.

"It wasn't exhausting," Ina responds. "I had my whole brain. . . . I couldn't do it now at all. I'm not what I used to be."

She pauses. The station wagon she loved to drive. What did they call it? Slowly, her mind searches for the answer. A Silver Bullet, she cries out in happiness. Remember those?

Sigh. Now she can no longer drive. And she can't make her own appointments for a haircut or the dentist because she never knows when her husband or daughters can take her.

"It is not that they are selfish or obdurate. It is that they are busy. Spies, spies! Spies don't have a schedule."

Everybody laughs, Ina the loudest. Her husband, Peter, worked for the CIA. But the spy in the family was last to notice something was wrong with Ina's brain, testimony to how well she covered up her symptoms.

Theirs is a marriage in which the mind has grown as entwined as the heart. Each night after dinner for a quarter-century, Ina snuggled on the sofa across from her husband's armchair and read a passage in a book or newspaper article to him, or he to her, and listened for a response. They returned the challenge back and forth, back and forth, like the ball on a tennis court. They are best friends.

"I am so lucky," she says.

They met in 1961, at a Christmas party in Rio de Janeiro given by the then-American ambassador to Brazil, Lincoln Gordon, who would later serve as president of the Johns Hopkins University. Ina was the ambassador's social secretary when she wasn't venturing into the slums of Rio to collect data for a master's degree in sociology. Peter Savage was living in Brazil as a Fulbright scholar.

Ina considered him the ultimate adventure: a funny, eccentric foreigner from a blue-blood American family, lover of music, art and literature, and sharing Ina's yearning to explore the world. When Peter left to earn a law degree in the States, she confidently waited for him; he returned to the embassy bearing the title of labor attache and a proposal of marriage.

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