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Losing Stu

By Robert Gauthier

Stu Bryant, by all accounts, is a decent guy.  If you spend a few minutes with him, he’ll look you in the eye, engage you briefly and maybe offer a hearty chuckle. You would never know that he’s suffering from a rare, fatal brain diseases known as FTD.  If you meet his wife, Maureen, “Moe,” who is rarely more than a few feet from him, you can tell there is something profoundly wrong.  His two daughters, both young adults, Katy and Jessica, bear the emotional scars that Stu’s FTD has wrought.

“I know this is my father,” said Jessica, “the man who raised me … but, this isn’t my dad.”

“This process of losing him is not physically painful for him,” said Moe, tears welling in her eyes, in a slow, metered voice, barely louder than a whisper, “but, he also doesn’t understand that he’s dying.”  A few breaths and a stare off into the distance later, she adds, “and most of the time I’m grateful for that.”

These are a few of dozens of intense moments of deep, raw pain that I was allowed to witness while following the Bryant family. As a photojournalist of nearly 30 years, I have documented the highest highs and lowest lows in people’s lives. It’s what’s beautiful and challenging about my profession: Earning people’s trust and bringing their stories to light.

Occasionally, though, a story hits as close to home as this one did.  I’m not quite as old as Stu, but I’m not that far off. It wasn’t hard to start putting myself in Stu’s shoes.

I have two children, both young adults like Katy and Jessica.

Like Stu, I walk around the house clicking my fingers and have a hard time sitting still. He’s still a scratch golfer; I can barely break 100.

Trivial, I know. But it took me down a longer path of awareness regarding his disease. The love of my family is the fuel that keeps me going.  To see that flame in him being extinguished scared me.

An already challenging story became much more, as I worked to understand what FTD felt like – for both Stu and his family. Moe, Katy and Jessica were obviously shaken as they tried to cope with what has happened and what, most certainly, will happen to them and their father. Emotionally, though, Stu is heading in the other direction.

A funny moment occurred one afternoon when I was following Stu around his Oxnard neighborhood. He wanted to show me the sights while tooling around in a golf cart.  As we were loading up, I didn’t notice a metal garage door frame hanging low from the ceiling, and I walked right into it, taking a 2-inch gouge out of the top of my scalp.  Instantly I was embarrassed, angry at myself, worried that I might not be able to continue to photograph Stu and in a bit of pain.  Stu broke out in laughter.  Moe quickly admonished him for it, and we were on our way.

That particular moment is interesting to me because in an instant, my frontal lobes were firing on all cylinders and Stu’s weren’t. He didn’t show any empathy while I was full of embarrassment. I felt many of the same feelings I once felt as a child after running my bike into the back of a parked car. My adrenaline raced throughout my body, staving off the inevitable headache as I concentrated on the task at hand.  All that comes from my frontal temporal lobes. I woozily rode along with Stu for a good half an hour, blood dripping down my scalp.  He had long since forgotten my gaffe and was only worried about keeping his schedule. Thankfully, Moe offered a bandage and some aspirin.

In some small way, my life is influenced by every story I photograph. I can honestly say, that this story has changed the way I look at myself and my family. The little things have become way more important. By allowing us into their world of pain and uncertainty, the Bryant family has given us all a valuable gift.

Read Thomas Curwen’s story: Little-known brain disease rips apart lives of victim, loved ones

Video: Frontotemporal dementia and the social brain

1 Comment

  1. February 13, 2012, 6:20 am

    A well told and touching story.

    By: dadanny

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