There are days my Father seems to disappear more into himself, like a rabbit down a hole that I can’t chase. We make a 50-minute appointment to visit him at The Fountainview Center for Alzheimer’s where he now lives, but we have no idea if he’ll be alert and chatty, or quiet and withdrawn.
I love the chatty days. His neurons are firing and he has much to tell us, some of which is indecipherable. His eyes light up when he talks, and it makes my heart smile. When I find him quiet, it unsettles me and I begin to wonder, is he sleepy or medicated? Or is he depressed or lonely? It’s like looking at an impressionistic painting up close. I see the concentrated dots of color, but I’m unable to step back to look at the bigger picture. I don’t see him interact with other residents, engage during mealtime or participate in activities. We can’t even visit his room. I feel like I’m trying to describe a house by only looking through the peephole on the front door.
Since I don’t have much time with my Father, I push the queries to the edges of my mind. And whatever the reason for his quiet demeanor, I try to chase down that rabbit hole to pull him out.
When we arrive for our visit donning masks, we slather on hand sanitizer, sign paperwork and have our temperature taken. Then an employee leads us down a corridor decorated with greeting cards and pictures taped to the walls. We walk outside through a courtyard nestled with flowering trees, azalea bushes, vine-covered arbors over wooden swings and garden statues. We’re then ushered into a simple meeting room decorated with bulletin boards, a table and a couple of chairs where we wait for my Father to be wheeled in. And then the clock starts.
Like a substitute teacher scrambling for an effective lesson plan, I try to bring things my Father can connect to. I satisfy his sweet tooth with a cookie while I pull out photo albums and point to black and white pictures of his parents and four sisters when they were younger. Sometimes he’ll look past the album, like he isn’t sure what he’s supposed to be looking at. But then I hand him a picture book of his granddaughter who was adopted from Russia and he lights up. He may not remember her name, but he knows this child. There are pictures of my Father cradling her the first time they met, dandling her, tickling her and celebrating her birthday.
My Father loves the Bible, so every time I visit, I read Scripture from my phone and watch him nod his head in agreement. My Father’s mind and body may have Alzheimer’s, but his spirit does not. So when I recite the Psalms of David or stories of Jesus, he listens intently with a focused gaze. It’s like I’m standing at mile 20 of the marathon known as Alzheimer’s, handing him a cup of cold water that he gulps eagerly. He is always thirsty for the Word.
Mom slathers on lotion for his dry skin and then pores over his face and arms, like a mother monkey grooming her child. As always, he patiently waits for her ritual to end, grateful for her attention. Sometimes the visit is especially meaningful. On my Father’s 82nd birthday we celebrated with a cake and balloons, while he couldn’t help but sing along to ‘Happy Birthday’ and then blew out the candles.
During one visit when he was particularly quiet, I pulled up one of the 167 videos on my phone of my Father singing and clapping along with Kevin Hyde on the piano at Grace Arbor. It only took a few seconds for the familiar music to pull him out of his solemnity. He began clapping his hands to ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Ring of Fire’, and then sang along to ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’.
I’ll wheel him around the courtyard to drink in the fresh spring air and feel the sun warm his face. We’ll click a few pictures, take a couple of videos and shower him with hugs before we pray with him to end our visit.
I see other residents who can no longer speak, and my heart aches with the knowledge that I am blessed to still reach down that rabbit hole and pull my Father out. I don’t know how long that will be the case, but I will be grateful for every single word he speaks, every hand clap, every nod to Scripture, every time his face lights up and every candle he blows out. And no matter his condition, as long as he’s still breathing, I will always chase after him.