I remember one of the first times that my Father forgot who I was. It was about a year ago and he had a restless itch. Maybe it was a full moon. Maybe he had cabin fever. Whatever the reason, he kept saying he wanted to “go home” and this desire was so intense that a simple conversation wasn’t enough to get his mind off the subject. I grabbed my keys and helped him into the car, which prompted a big smile and a look of relief. I knew that if I drove him around or we went into a store, he would forget about “going home” and the restlessness would dissipate.
At the time, he believed his parents were still alive and well on their Tennessee farm, some four hours away. By nature, when a person says something that isn’t true, we have a tendency to correct them. But I learned years ago that correcting someone with Alzheimer’s can not only be foolish, but cruel. What good would it do to tell him that his parents had died years ago? Rather than forcing him into my reality, I chose to join him in his.
It was about 6 o’clock in the evening when we pulled into Sprout’s parking lot. He told me that his parents would be on their front porch waiting for him. I racked my brain to figure out what to tell him.
“Your parents actually called,” I told him, “and they don’t want you to have to travel at night so they said you should just rest up and get an early start tomorrow morning.”
He wasn’t upset at all. “That was very thoughtful of them,” he said, smiling.
And that was that. No more talk of going home that evening. I knew that tomorrow morning he would have forgotten all about this conversation. Then I decided to stick my proverbial toe in the water.
“Did you know that you got married?” I asked him.
“Yes. You married Jane Weaver and had three daughters.” I watched him take in this information, looking a bit puzzled.
“Three daughters?” he asked.
“Yes. And you have four grandchildren.”
That brought a smile to his face. When I told him that I was one of his daughters, he didn’t say anything. He just looked incredulously at me and tried to wrap his head around this news.
It was one of my biggest fears as a caregiver, that my Father would forget me. I wondered how I would respond when the time finally came. Would I fall to pieces? By nature, I am a sensitive person, so I thought it would feel like a death blow. I tried to brace myself for it, as if I was riding a roller coaster that flipped me upside down more than right side up. Just hold on tight and all will be well again, right? He’ll still have moments of clarity, won’t he?
It turns out that I didn’t fall to pieces. By the time my Father had forgotten who I was, my Heavenly Father had wrapped His amazing grace around my heart so many times that I was somehow prepared. It was like I was a passenger on a plane, flying above the clouds. As soon as we encountered turbulence, the pilot increased the altitude and we rose above it. The turbulence was still there, but I couldn’t feel it as much. My Father may not know my name, but it was like he knew that he belonged with me.
He refers to my Mother and I as “those ladies that take care of me” and I was surprised that I didn’t fall apart the first time he said that. Whatever grief I did feel in those moments, I learned to see that grief as separate from and not a part of me. I would not take on grief as my identity, but give it to God and let it go. Thankfully, my Father still has moments of clarity when he knows that I am his daughter.
Alzheimer’s is a very cruel disease and you can’t embark on this horrific journey unscathed. I wish you could. But the way I look at it is whenever the disease has progressed further and a piece of my Father has been stolen, the pain and sorrow I feel increases my capacity to love. Loving someone when everything is good is easy. Loving someone when your heart gets torn to pieces is much harder. And that’s exactly what people with Alzheimer’s need ~ to be loved even when they forget who you are.
I can always tell how my Father sees me when I tell him that I love him. If he answers, “Thank you”, then I am just a nice lady, no relation. But if he responds, “I love you too,” then he knows that I am his daughter.
Every once in a while, the heavens open and bestow upon me an unexpected gift. Last week, I helped him out of bed in the middle of the night to use the restroom. He’s usually half asleep, heavily medicated and very confused. But on that night, without any prompting from me, my Father looked up at me with a smile on his face and said, “I love you.”
My heart melted right there. Not even a minute later, he said it again, to make sure I heard him. And in that moment, I wasn’t a caregiver helping a man with Alzheimer’s. I was my Father’s daughter.