Bill Arnott’s Beat: Dementia, Depression, and Other Feel-Good Stories

I have a friend (acquaintance, really) – Gunnar Thor Gunnarsson. Best name EVER, I thought. Until I met Lorenz von Fersen. Now THAT’S a name. The kind of name I’d choose for myself, assuming Max Power’s already been taken. Turns out Lorenz’s excellent moniker fits. He’s an excellent man doing excellent work. And has done for years. If you’ve lived in the Vancouver area you’ve benefitted from the tireless efforts of Lorenz: writers’ festivals, children’s festivals, music festivals, international and civic celebrations with installations of art and history that blanket our metropolis – lifetimes of stories breathing personality into populous clumps of construction. Even following his retirement Fersen continues to give back, contributing to worthy causes and deserving individuals.

I first met Lorenz at Alma Lee’s home. We were picking the brain of the woman behind The Writers’ Union of Canada and the Vancouver International Writers Festival. Pictures around the living-dining room reminded me of those snapshots presidents display – dignitaries adorned in chains of office and whatnot, maybe one with Keanu Reeves to let tour groups know POTUS is just like us. But rather than politicos, the photos around Alma’s place were literary titans – authors who treasure people like her and Lorenz and all they do for the benefit of others. Lorenz arrived at Alma’s as we were finishing lunch – a stack of cold, mediocre pizza (my contribution). Fersen glanced at the crusty wedges on the table with a look of mild disgust he managed to contain with the utmost tact, managing a courteous nod to those of us who had, more or less, rather enjoyed the horrific food. [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#039AD4″ class=”” size=”24″]I remember my dad, late in his life, stating with resigned clarity and a sigh, “I’m losing it.” And knowing it was a one-way road with no discernable detour. [/perfectpullquote] Now I was sitting in morning sunshine with Lorenz at a West End coffee house. His expression was one of happiness – good coffee, good croissant, good company (I believe) – his eyes alight with youthful exuberance. He handed me a copy of Norbert Ruebsaat’s book of poetry, Words that forgot they exist: Dementia Dialogues, poetry written by Ruebsaat as he slowly, inexorably, slides into dementia. Like most sufferers he KNOWS he’s losing cognitive faculties, his failing mental aptitude unrecoverable.

Every writer, every poet, can relate to searching for words, memories, at times as desperate as a drowning victim flailing toward a flotation device. But imagine that life preserver, your Wilson-like companion, simply floating away, forever. I remember my dad, late in his life, stating with resigned clarity and a sigh, “I’m losing it.” And knowing it was a one-way road with no discernable detour.

Taking the reins on this worthy endeavor, not only has Lorenz helped to compile a solid suite of his friend Norbert’s poetry, but shed light on a frighteningly familiar condition. Yes there’s research, progress and hope, same as cancer and every other pandemic. But that doesn’t help sufferers NOW – those afflicted and every person who loves them.

In reading these poems, lines pierce with poignant honesty. From Dementia Moment, “If I do this I’ll forget what I just did.” From Elder Poem #85, “How does one simply die?” And from To my Daughter, “Thank you.”

I’m reminded of poet Rob Taylor’s book Oh, Not So Great: Poems from the Depression Project, the ambitious, successful project shedding light on mental health issues published by Simon Fraser University’s Health Sciences Department – more good people doing good work through poetry. It’s satisfying to know Fersen is bringing Norbert’s book to a wider audience, a fresh facet of research, insight, awareness, and collaboration. Norbert Ruebsaat’s Words that forgot they exist: Dementia Dialogues is available through Amazon.

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Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of A Season on Vancouver Island, theGone Viking travelogues, andA Perfect Day for a Walk: The History, Cultures, and Communities of Vancouver, on Foot(Arsenal Pulp Press, Fall 2024). Recipient of a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions, Bill’s a frequent presenter and contributor to magazines, universities, podcasts, TV and radio. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.