Gary Lawson, 68, a retired federal law enforcement officer, sometimes believes his battle with Alzheimer's has a silver lining.
Often, in his ever-clouding mind, he says, he gets flashes of insight — like little lightning bolts of truth.
These insights are hard to put words to, he says, but they can be summed up as a growing certainty in a god-like force in the universe, and a sense that human history reveals universal truths.
He explains that instead of feeling like his mind is being erased, it feels like too may thoughts are trying to crowd into his brain at once.
It's frustrating. Sometimes he heads to the bathroom and forgets where he is going, he says.
Yet he can stop in mid-sentence during an interview, point to a leaf on a tree outside his back window and instantly take comfort in the intelligent design of nature. Surely a god who can create a perfect leaf can comfort a human heart.
He says he is happy to have a visitor to keep him focused.
Lawson lives in a log cabin in a remote hollow in Meigs County, Tenn., amid a collection of Native American and Civil War artifacts. The walls of the cabin are filled with arrowheads, muskets and powder horns that Lawson has found and/or purchased at antique stores over the years.
"Nearly every antique store has one or two things worth the money," he explains. "Whether you need them or not is up to you."
On the day of my visit, Lawson walked me around the room, explaining each item like the curator of a history museum.
- Here is a pistol from France used in the Revolutionary War, he explains.
- Here is a 10,000-year-old arrowhead, perhaps used by indigenous people to kill mastodons.
- Here is a Brown Bess musket from the Civil War era.
- Here is a tomahawk that is also a tobacco pipe.
Lawson says he has loved history ever since his days at Bradley County High School in the 1960s. As a boy, his father was a commercial fisherman on the Hiwassee River and he would tag along and search for arrowheads along the shore.
Unlike the future, which taxes the brain to think about, history is permanent. It will sit still long enough for you to reflect and ponder.
Lawson thinks Southeast Tennessee's Civil War and Native American history make it a ripe stage for story-telling. He thinks he can see the area becoming a magnet for Hollywood movie-makers.
When I start to leave after our talk, Lawson hands me a sheaf of papers, most of which he has written in the last few days. Each page is a handwritten rumination — observations and beliefs he wants to get out of his head and on paper while he still can.
Back at the office, I leaf through the stack, reading at random. One page is about Lawson's father, who fought at Normandy.
"I saw him cry three times in my life," Lawson said. "Once when his good coon dog got killed, once when his mother died and once when he was dying."
I remembered Lawson told me he cries at the drop of a hat.
"Me, too," I told him.
I realize Lawson and I have a lot in common. My dad was a soldier, my mom died with Alzheimer's, I write thoughts down on paper, too, just to get them out of my head.
Here's one: Life is just a series of awkward pauses between insights.
Keep writing, Gary Lawson. Your little lightning bolts of insight might be more illuminating than you think.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.