I catch precious fleeting flashes of my "Before Alzheimer's" (BA) father every so often. They are brief. Those times most often occur in small social settings. To my eye, one who knows him, my father appears not able to process the conversations going on around him. I watch him closely as his old smile appears, he nods his head as if he’s following along, but I know he’s not. I see the way he glances slolwy away, how fixed his smile becomes, how his eyes drift. How his hand trembles. I don't know if others notice.
My mother has to tell my father the same things over and over again. I picked mom’s car up from the local garage the other day after she had had the oil changed. I parked the car in their garage and went inside to visit while I waited for my husband to pick me up. Dad came into the room where mom and I were talking. He stood, seemingly puzzled and started to ask, “Where…..” and couldn’t get another word out. He pointed toward the garage. My mother supplied the rest of the question; “Where is the car? It’s in the garage, Jimmy. Teri went and got it for us”. He shook his head as if he understood and walked away satisfied with mom’s answer. Not three minutes later he was back again trying to ask the same question. Mom gently intercepted the question before he could even attempt to get the first word out, and he walked away again seemingly content with her answer. Mom whispered, “He’ll ask me the same question five more times”.
I don’t know where my mother gets her patience or her strength. From some deep well where her and my dad’s love and marriage has lived for fifty-three years, I suppose. That marriage is theirs, not mine. I cannot trespass into that place. I am my dad’s daughter. She is his wife. Dad’s wife, my mom, cares for him tenderly and intimately in ways I know she never dreamed she would have to. My mother and father are almost cocooned together. Dad doesn’t like it when she is away from him for any length of time, He will keep asking where she is, his hands shake more, and he becomes agitated. My mom is the only anchor he has left. But I see the toll it is taking on her. How long can she do this? Right now, I know she is taking it day by day. That’s all she can do. She told me last week, “I don’t know how much longer I can keep going to church. Your dad has a hard time getting dressed and he isn’t comfortable around all the people”. My mom’s one true out let is her church home. The more my father retreats from life, the more my mom is forced to retreat also.
People tell my mother, “Call if there’s anything I can do”. Then she doesn’t hear another word from them. Why do they do this? Why don’t they just take some kind of action? Why don’t they call and tell mom they are coming to visit dad? Why don’t they offer to take him for a short ride? Why don’t they DO something? I know. It’s because most people don’t know how to act around someone with Alzheimer’s. My dad might embarrass them or say something he shouldn’t. But my father is dying. There is no doubt about that. There is no treatment. There is no cure. Why is my father not afforded the same respect and care as someone dying from terminal cancer? If he had cancer, people would visit, sit around his deathbed in loving concern, bring flowers, talk to him. That, in the end, is the true tragedy of Alzheimer’s. No one wants to be around it. They don’t understand it. They fear it. In their minds, my father has become the Alzheimer’s. So, people do nothing or little, even me, and my father fades away a bit more each day. And my mother is becoming exhausted.
She has risen to the vows she took fifty-three years ago. I look at my mom with pride, and an almost weeping amazement overcomes me. She is tired, hurt, mourning, angry. She is walking in a land she never thought she would ever have to prepare for. And she is holding my father’s hand on this, their last journey together, just as she did for twenty-three years of journeying: from Georgia to Oregon, Colorado to Mississippi, Japan to Texas, Georgia to Texas, Crete to Texas, Mississippi to Georgia. Ending up where she started. She never complained, not that I ever heard. Her talent for making each empty new house into a home was taken for granted.
But, I see now, Mom. I really do see. Maybe a little late, but I do see. Whenever someone says I look like you and that I have your blue eyes, I smile because I know there is also a chance that your strength runs though my blood. I can only hope….
Happy Belated Mother's Day. I couldn't get the words right the first try. Now they are complete.