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Making Sense of Alzheimer’s is a creative space for people to understand the past, present and future of Alzheimer’s disease. It is an evolving forum, a gallery of ideas, a museum without walls.

Laughing with Dugald

By Christine MacArthur

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Christine MacArthur reads "Laughing with Dugald"

My husband, Dugald MacArthur, was and still is a funny man.   Born in 1929, he was groomed to be a businessman like his father.  He went to Dartmouth College and later earned an MBA from Harvard. While at Dartmouth he was friends with comedian and writer, Buck Henry, who is most known for writing the screenplay for The Graduate.  Dugald and Henry wrote comedy sketches and Dugald told me that they joked about the new “Plastics” industry, a concept later made memorable by the film.  After school and the army, ironically, he worked for a plastics company selling dry cleaning bags. His remark that perhaps they should sell them as “prophylactics for elephants” caused the company’s psychologist to question his motivation to be a salesman.

He was unlike anyone I had ever met

He quit his corporate job.  After a brief stint as an actor, he turned to directing which led to a prestigious career as a director and acting teacher.  He worked at Arkansas Art Center, San Francisco State, and California Institute of the Arts before coming to Philadelphia to head the MFA program in Acting at Temple University. This is where we met.  It was Dugald’s quick wit and ironic sense of humor that really attracted me.  He was unlike anyone I had ever met.  We dated off and on until we finally married in 1981.  Our children Alexandra and Lorne were born shortly after. Dugald continued to teach and direct at Temple University for 25 years. After retirement from Temple University, he continued to direct plays at Lantern Theatre in Philadelphia where he also served on the Board until his late 70’s.

In 2009, a year after receiving his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Dugald was awarded a Barrymore Life Achievement award.  Few people knew of his condition in the theatre world. When he was called to the podium at the Walnut Theatre to accept the award, I was afraid that he would not be able to get through the speech he had prepared.  He couldn’t memorize it at this point and reading it was going to be hard under stage lighting. However, Dugald skipped the prepared speech and spontaneously delivered a charming, humorous acceptance speech.  He pulled it off!

A different language, yet still laughing together

Since that award ceremony, my once so eloquent husband no longer speaks in a language I can understand, nor does he seem to understand me.   Yet, we still laugh together.  How can this sense of humor manifest itself in someone who can’t really speak?

Sometimes he says things that are completely coherent.  One night I was washing dishes and was drying my big bread bowl.  I put it on the table and he said, clear as a bell, “I’m not that hungry.”   We always had an assortment of dogs and cats in the household.  He would make up conversations for them using funny voices.  He was so good I thought he should have written a children’s book.  The animals are still a constant source of joy for him.  There are no words necessary to communicate with them.  He pets them, watches out for them and breaks up the little squabbles that occur.  Apparently he still talks for them as well.  Our granddaughter, Rhys, said that Dugald spoke clearly in the persona of our dog, Hamish, and said, “My daddy is silly and he talks in gibberish.”   Is he then laughing at himself through a persona?

He still loves to act in front of an audience.  Even though he doesn’t remember directing plays or his life at Temple with actors, he automatically performs in front of strangers.  At the daycare center he does a series of silent film-like poses when he arrives that always get a laugh from the employees.  One day when I went to pick him up, I saw a lady stroke his cheek.  I said to him on the way out, “Looks like you have a girlfriend!” and he impishly replied, “Well, I wasn’t going to let her go too far.” He greets strangers when we go downtown with a flamboyant gesture that always is reciprocated with a smile.  Dugald will always smile at a child in passing and try to talk to them as he does with the animals.  They always acknowledge him too.  It is in his sense of the theatrical that his personality still resonates.

This is an awful disease, but I have learned that the best way to deal with it is to never look forward or backwards.

This is an awful disease, but I have learned that the best way to deal with it is to never look forward or backwards.

Despite the difference in our ages, I never thought Dugald would die this way.  I guess maybe I thought he was too smart, too vigorous. He was always physically active and in excellent health.  I envisioned us travelling and enjoying our freedom after my retirement. I really thought he would live well into his nineties.

All is not lost

It is now six years later and life goes on. We have our routines — daycare two days a week, and Marianne, my cousin, who fills in the other three when I have to work.  We also still have some pleasures, such as going out to dinner, attending Philadelphia Orchestra concerts and participating in a book group with old friends.  Dugald loves music and has been so actively engaged during concerts that people have asked me if he was a conductor.

These events help me deal with the other frustrating aspects of this disease.  While I have luckily been spared so far some of the worst Alzheimer’s has to offer —Dugald sleeps well and usually has a good temper — there are many times when I want to (and sometimes do) scream in frustration.  Any time we leave the house, it is a lengthy project just to get him in the car.  As a result, I am in many ways a prisoner and have lost any ability to be spontaneous.  This is where living in the present helps.

While I do not have the same man I married, all is not lost.  There is still the ability to make fun of the frustrating, to laugh at a gesture and to enjoy an inside joke.  Dramatists know the value of comic relief in the tragedy of life, and perhaps Dugald’s own sense of humor is helping him to live with his.

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  1. Deborah Fries says:

    I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Chris and learning about her amazing life with Dugald. In person and in print, she tells their story with eloquence, insight and — of course — humor. So glad she could share it in her own voice with so many, through this website.

  2. Joanne Eisensmidts says:

    I enjoyed your essay, Christine. I know you as well as Dugald’s daughter Gwyn and her children. I am very sorry for your loss. I heard yesterday of Dugald’s passing. He was truly an engaging and vivacious host during your annual New Year’s Eve galas. He was so handsome and dashing in his tux. I know the pain and exasperation and, yes, even joy that your family has experienced since his diagnosis. He was an intelligent conversationalist and made you feel he was truly interested in you. I saw photos of him in his youth and completely understand your attraction to him when you first met. God bless you and your family. Know that Dugald is finally at peace and back to his old self.

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