Beginning at the End:
Portraits of Dementia by Joe Wallace

© 2019 Joe Wallace

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Tsu-ming Wu

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Tsu-ming Wu was born December 18, 1934 in Taipei, Taiwan. One of 9 children, Tsu-ming was part of a family who took great pride in their education. He remembers the Japanese occupation and the officers who commandeered his home - but he also remembers fondly that school was closed during much of the war so he had more time for his favorite activity - fishing!

He attended the prestigious National Taiwan University and earned a degree in physics. It was there he met his future wife, Grace Chin-Fa, who was an accomplished musician. After getting engaged, Tsu-ming traveled to the United States to study at the University of Pennsylvania. In that time, he married Grace and earned a masters degree and a Ph.D. in physics. After two years of post-doctorate work at Case Western Reserve, he became a professor at Binghamton University, where he taught physics for 46 years.

I asked him what was the most important thing he wanted to teach his children and he said, “The most important for us was to keep letting them work on their education.” Most of his family and siblings became doctors - a career offering prestige and a reliable income. But Tsu-Ming chose a different path, he told me “Making money is easy. Anyone can do that.” For him, research was a higher calling, a noble pursuit of new ideas and concepts. After 46 years of teaching and living a very modest lifestyle with few if any extravagances, he again demonstrated his beliefs by creating an endowed fellowship fund at Binghamton for graduate students in mathematics and science.

A few years ago Tsu-ming started showing signs of memory issues. After a few doctor visits and tests, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. At first, he would express fear and frustration at his difficulty remembering details or doing routine tasks. Soon this was followed by diminished interest in his hobbies, conversation, and even being with family and friends. His daughter Tina told me "He’s most proud of his children and what they have accomplished. He put everything he had into us. It's very frustrating to me to see him be appear to be so bored now with his life and not be able to interact the way he used to. It really isn't fair; both my brother and I are working away in our busy "important" jobs and large homes, but can't think of durable ways to have my parents enjoy their senior years more."

Before our interview, Tina confided that they are not a demonstrative family and I suppose a casual outsider might agree. His Alzheimer’s may have diminished the way Tsu-ming communicates, his facility with language or attention span. But his admiration and deep love for his daughter Tina sitting across the room was readily apparent. His attention would flicker during our ninety minutes of conversation - but his smile and laughter were sparked over and over by his daughter. Look at his expression in the portrait of him alone compared to his expression when he is making physical contact with Tina. The difference is profound, and a welcome reminder that connection is possible even when you think hope is lost.