And spelling. "Come on, I can do this," he told himself when letters started going haywire. But he couldn't.
A few minutes later, his wife asked if he could read the hour. He gazed at the round dial.
"It's 10. No. It's 11." He looked up. "I don't know."
Because PPA creeps into a mind earlier than most dementias, it often goes unrecognized. Foote was lucky enough to find his way to Northwestern's Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center, the sponsor of the upcoming conference, where he was diagnosed.
At Northwestern, he learned the bad news: There is no cure. Unlike stroke victims, people with PPA can't recover speech through therapy. Eventually, memory goes too.
At the same time, he learned that people with PPA often develop skills that don't demand much talk. Some garden. Or build things. He has taken up watercolors. He also hangs on to his job as a docent at the Loyola University Museum of Art.
Some days he goes to a support group at Northwestern. It's a place where people who have trouble talking feel safe talking to each other.
"I used to be able to," he said. "To. Be able. Help."
"Help other people," Cathy said.
She finishes a lot of his sentences. She pays the bills now too. The numbers were too much for him. But he cleans and cooks, and if his trouble with measurements results in some strange dishes, she doesn't mind.
"For a while there," he said, "I was, I was driving in the evening and there was a little..."
He waved his hands, smiled, let the unspoken words drift off.
To prepare for our interview, Foote scribbled two lines of a Dylan Thomas poem on a small yellow sheet of paper. He picked it up to read.
"Do not go dentle," he said. Paused. "Do not go gentle." Pause. "Into there."
The lines as he had written them were this:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
"Fight it," he said. "Fight it. I'm not fighting it to be angry. I keep raging to make sure I can keep doing things."
Cathy reached out, clasped his wrist, blinked back tears.
"He's the most upbeat, enthusiastic, joyful man," she said. "But there's going to come a time."
Her words, too, drifted off.