On a Wednesday night, beer night at Arlington's popular Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, a tall, bespectacled fellow with a white beard and a fringe of white hair has been standing for some time outside the women's restroom. Whenever the door opens, he cranes his neck and tries to peer inside.
Three women are watching him; they are getting more and more perturbed. One of them strides over. "Excuse me," she says, an edge to her voice. "Can I help you?"
"As a matter of fact, you can," Barry Cooper tells her. "My wife is in the restroom; she has Alzheimer's. Would you mind checking on her?"
Linda Cooper died Aug. 15 at age 61. In the seven years since her diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, the Coopers learned a great deal about the indignities and inadequacies that people trying to cope with the brain-wasting disease face every day, including single-sex restrooms. They also learned what it means to live with courage and resolve, even as the illness worked its insidious way with Linda's mind.
Linda and Barry met at a party in McLean in 1975. He was a Brooklyn boy, working on a master's degree in health administration at George Washington University. She was a single mother with two small children. She was an artist and a poet, a Navy brat who had grown up all over the world. They knew from that first night they were fated to be together. They married in 1981 in a big wedding.
He was running a minority recruitment program in health administration. Linda had gotten a secretarial job with the Huntington T. Block Insurance Agency (now AON Huntington T. Block), which specializes in fine arts insurance. It wasn't long before she had parlayed her lively personality and her artistic acumen into a position arranging coverage and protection for wealthy collectors. She regularly worked with Lloyd's of London.
Barry and their friends enjoyed her story about the time she was trying to convince a local collector who owned paintings worth millions that he needed a fire-detection system for his mansion. As he sat in an easy chair, smoking a pipe, pondering her arguments and politely shaking his head no, smoke began to waft up from where he sat. Bounding out of the smoldering chair, he raced to the kitchen and came back with a pan of water to douse the flames. Nothing more needed to be said.
The Coopers moved to Southern California in 1984, and Linda went to work for Clifford Stanton Heinz, a Newport Beach private investor and brother to the late Pennsylvania senator. She quickly became indispensable, helping Heinz with the construction of his house and with his art collection and investments.
She continued with her own painting and poetry. "This is her life," Barry said, nodding toward several impressionist-style paintings in bright reds, blues and greens on the wall of the den. "This is what she had to do."
She transformed their back yard into a verdant secret garden; she was the unofficial interior decorator for their friends; she wrote letters and notes in calligraphy. "She always had beauty around her," Barry Cooper said.
They came back to the Washington area in 1990. Barry was vice president of a Charlottesville-based company called Occupational Health Strategies; Linda was working as an assistant to architect James Freed on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and later as a fine arts insurance specialist with Henderson Phillips Fine Arts.
At first, it was the little things: She had trouble remembering dates, couldn't balance her checkbook. She failed a written scuba diving test, something she never would have done under normal circumstances.
By the time her Alzheimer's was diagnosed in 1997, there was no denying that she was seriously ill. Her father had died of early-onset Alzheimer's; there is probably a genetic component to the disease.
On the night they got the diagnosis, Barry went to a late-night bookstore, where he sat on the floor for hours and read everything available about the illness.
"But the real change for me," he recalled, "was when I saw the movie 'Life Is Beautiful,' the [Roberto] Benigni film. I realized that in the movie the man was taking a child through a concentration camp, and the child doesn't realize it, because he was normalizing the experience."
The film inspired him to spend his remaining years with Linda fully and joyously. He cut back on his hours at work, doing consulting from home. They traveled -- to Mexico, Florida, Bermuda. He tried to help her "normalize the experience."
She was aware of what was happening to her and shared her husband's determination to keep fighting. A line of poetry from her sketchbook seemed to capture their newfound awareness: "Get rid of the clutter that strangles your fate." She had written the line in 1980, long before its essential meaning became clear.
Linda went on memantine, a drug long used in Europe to combat the ravages of Alzheimer's. (Memantine became available in this country in January.) In combination with a drug called Aricept, it seemed to slow the progress of Linda's disease. "These are priceless moments regained," Barry told a Food and Drug Administration panel last fall.
After about six months, the disease renewed its assault, and Linda began to slip away. Last fall, she began having psychotic episodes. Barry, along with Linda's devoted caretaker, Nellie Stafford, looked for little things to make her days easier. They listened to music by her favorites, John Prine and Joe Cocker. They went for rides in the car. Barry, with invaluable assistance from Stafford and the Alzheimer's Family Day Center in Fairfax, was able to care for his wife at home.
He also bought a digital camera with video clip to help Linda remember their experiences together. In the days since Linda's death, the pictures have helped him remember. He also has organized a nonprofit organization that will work to improve companion care for Alzheimer's patients. Getting companion-care restrooms in public places is high on the list of aims, along with a nationwide system of caregiver cooperatives. Tax-exempt status came through last week.
Barry Cooper has a message he learned from his wife: "The good things in life don't have to end with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's. There's a lot of life still to live."