It was September 2010, and we were walking on the long stretch of beach in Mission Bay, near San Diego, California. He described to me how he and his wife had gone to see a doctor as he was starting to forget things. He was seventy-three, so I am thinking, “Who doesn’t forget things as he or she gets older?”
Only this was different. He was very scared.
He could not pass certain memory tests. You know, the ones where they give you a list of 10 animals, make you repeat them one at a time, then ask you to now name as many as you can remember. Lists like that. Word lists and number lists. And he was a pretty bright guy. He was a math writer, a math teacher, and a deep thinker all of his life. Something was changing though.
We walked a long way that day. We laughed and cried, got angry and tender. We prayed and wondered why. In modern day terms we were BFFs. Thick as thieves. We had been though thirty-five years of life together—leaning on one another during the good and bad. I bet you have a friend like that.
And that day on the beach, we had a beer together as the sun was setting, looking for that “Green Flash” moment as the sun sets on the horizon. Not this time though. Not ever again. We had no idea what was really ahead.
What does it mean to start down the road of early-onset Alzheimer’s? It is a road that once entered, you cannot choose a different path. And the road takes you to places your friends and family will not be allowed to go. You will not know if they are there or not. You will not be able to respond to them.
From his early days as a mathematics and computer-science teacher at Proviso West in suburban Chicago, to his final days as the Department Chair and leader at Lyons Township High School and TI technology leader extraordinaire—he had a broad impact on the national mathematics community.
Yet eventually, he could not remember that he was once President of NCSM from 1999-2001 and served as an ambassador to the world for mathematics education in Australia and China. He could not remember his leadership legacy of the thousands of mathematics educators he inspired over the years at MMC and ICTM events. Or the hundreds of individuals that were fired up and encouraged by him to reach for mathematics leadership dreams far beyond their own levels of confidence. He, and they, painfully learned to let go.
Moving through the stages of Alzheimer’s has a different rate of speed for different people. In his case, it was a five-year journey. There was plenty of time for some great and sweet memories before it was too late, but gradually his movements became more and more restricted. We missed him at the annual NCSM conferences in New Orleans (one of his favorite cities) and Boston. His ability to communicate and to respond became gradually too limited. It seemed to sneak up on him, and then, it gracefully ended.
In his case, that was January 13, 2016. He and his wife Susan were favorites in the NCSM community, with so many friends across so many states. At the celebration of Jerry’s life on January 25, USC Theologian Dallas Willard (2013) was quoted:
A person is essentially a collection of conscious experiences. Far more than just bodies or just appetites, we are our experiences. That is why we treasure the good ones.
He was our treasure. The collection of experiences with him will forever be part of the good ones we get in this life. And, our experiences with him have shaped our hope of being better math teachers and leaders for others tomorrow. May we all have the hope of a BFF-Jerry-Cummins-like experience in our life!
Timothy D. Kanold
NCSM President 2007-2009