How Alzheimer’s Saved My Relationship With My Dad

October 31, 2017

Nothing prepared me for getting the dream parent I always wanted.

Growing up, I watched my Dad from a distance. A U.S. Air Force pilot, he sent me postcards and small, hand-carved elephants from his far-off post in Thailand.

I marveled at these exotic gifts from the handsome uniformed man in my  mother’s black-and-white photos. I was four years old.

Years later, while other dads were coaching their daughters’ soccer and softball teams, my dream dad retreated behind a wall of TV and martinis. When I was away at college, he visited me once – at graduation. While I rhapsodized about the excitement and opportunities of working in news, he worried whether I’d “find a husband.”

We weren’t exactly like peas and carrots. Until he began suffering from dementia in his 70s. Suddenly, the aloof armor he’d worn my whole life cracked, revealing the fragile and accessible man underneath.

People say Alzheimer’s disease, which is a form of dementia, is a curse. But it gave me one of the most precious and healing gifts I’d ever received – a second chance to know my dad.

I didn’t know what to expect when my stepsister called to say he needed my help. But, like many eager-to-please daughters, I was happy to give it.

I had already taken a leave of absence from work to care for my mom as she succumbed to cancer. She was gone now, so I figured I’d use the time to help dad. His decline was shocking.

The man who once piloted powerful jets and bombers no longer understood his bills. He couldn’t remember which lifesaving pills were which – were the blue ones for hypertension or diabetes? Driving was out of the question.

Progressive brain diseases like Alzheimer’s erode your short-term memory. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, damage to nerve cells in the brain make it difficult to perform routine tasks, like dressing, keeping appointments or following a recipe.

That’s what the doctors tell you. That Alzheimer’s is slow, grueling and insidious. That’s all true. But what’s not as well-known are the illness’s surprising gifts. A person with Alzheimer’s can develop an almost photographic memory of their early past. This was the case with my dad.

He shared stories with me I’d never heard before – talking about his magical boyhood trips from Chicago, Ill. to his grandmother’s home in Miami Beach, Fla. aboard the glamorous sea plane known as the Pan American clipper. Seats were wide and luxurious, and games were provided for kids. Passengers lived it up, enjoying four-course meals on silver platters served by waiters in uniform. He tasted his first shrimp cocktail on those planes and developed a life-long love for the quaint appetizer.

Once in Miami, he and his younger brother, my uncle, would drag their beds out onto the front porch to sleep under the warm tropical air and midnight canvas of stars. He’d kidnap his brother’s stuffed rabbit, Thumper, and hang it from a nearby tree until his grandmother forced him to return it.

You could almost see the years fall away from his face as he told these tales. His eyes sparkled and he was right back there, aboard that plane, in that vacation house, on that cricket-serenaded porch.

We’d go out to lunch and split a club sandwich, his favorite. In the afternoons, I’d pull out old black-and-white photos and quiz him about the jets he flew. How fast had they gone? Did he really navigate using paper maps? What was it like to travel at Mach 1? To carry live ammunition? Was it scary? Did he ever get air-sick? What if he had to go to the bathroom?

He’d patiently answer my questions, chuckling at my naivete, I suppose. I was asking about planes but what I really wanted to know is: Who are you? What do you love?

As the disease progressed, he’d sometimes have difficulty finding the words to answer my endless questions. He might pause and scratch his head or joke, “That was a brilliant thing to say, Potts,” if he felt his answers weren’t up to snuff.

Sometimes he’d grow somber and regretful. Fearful, perhaps? At times like these, he’d say, “Come sit next to me, would you, Jacks?”

We’d sit together silently, holding hands. I learned that those were when his memories were heavy, anguished. He was remembering my mother and his second wife, both of whom are gone now.

Wife No. 2 was a warm but troubled woman who killed herself one evening while he slept. He never talked about how he found her body, the shock and horror that must have been and the haunting, heartbreaking regret that lingered for years after.

For 25 years, he’d kept that horrible vision to himself. But now the emotion spilled out of him.

“You know, I found her,” he’d say, tears welling in this once-stoic military man’s eyes. “It was such a mess. I just don’t understand why she did it. I loved her so much.”

Words failed me then. I’d squeeze his hand, rub his back, say inadequate things like, “Yes, that must have been terrible.”

And wait for the darkness to pass.

Emotional changes are common for those with Alzheimer’s, although normally we only hear about the upsetting incidents: tantrums, unfounded accusations of stealing or uncharacteristic swearing.

Damage to the brain’s frontal lobes causes these losses of inhibition, the Alzheimer’s Association says, but the results aren’t always upsetting. Sometimes a patient actually becomes more open and affectionate, according to the author of Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s, Marie Marley.

“[My husband] was forever telling the staff at the Alois Center how beautiful they were and how lucky he was to have their help. He also told me how beautiful I was every single time he saw me. I did start to tire of it and, so I asked him if he could stop it. He said, ‘I can stop, but it will be difficult,’” she recalls.

I don’t mean to imply that my dad was Cyrano de Bergerac who only ever had gallant, unselfish things to say. He experienced his share of rages and stubborn spells too – usually when doctor’s appointments were imminent. He hated going to the doctor.

But the memories seared into my heart are of things many daughters long to hear, but fear they never will.

“I’m proud of you, Jackie,” he’d say.

“You’ve done really well for yourself. You’re my best friend.”

I have Alzheimer’s to thank for that.

Image via tumblr.com.

Comment: Has Alzheimer’s touched your life in unexpected ways?

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