I take a deep breath, as I press the cold, white doorbell, preparing myself for what I may encounter. An elderly, thin man opens the door. Behind him, sparkling, holiday lights outline the nurse’s station. Brushing off my fleeting concern about forgetting the door code again, I smile and say “thank-you,” but the man’s face remains expressionless. I locate Dad’s room, soothing myself, “All that matters is to try to be a good daughter.” I stand at his bedside, watching him sleep on his back, without covers, looking older than our last visit. I wonder why he sleeps on his back now since he always slept on his stomach before his illness.
As I call him, his eyes pop open, and he partially smiles, “It’s Sandra!” I’m relieved. At our last visit, he didn’t recognize me. “How did you know where I was?” he questions. I chuckle to myself since I brought him to this Nursing Facility. At every visit, he asks this same question, as if he is lost, and I continue to find him. Today, he is more like my father, just happy with my presence. Other visits, he seems impatient and bothered. His food-stained clothes, partially dirty and unshaven face, provoke an internal conflict, which has become too familiar: “Should I suggest putting on clean clothes and washing his face, or do I risk annoying him and intruding on his pride?” I decide to sidestep the battle, assuaging my guilt, “How important is it really?” Besides, he is content now, and seeing him agitated and combative is upsetting.
Gently, I place the folded, newspaper on his nightstand, knowing that he can no longer read. However, his longstanding ritual of drinking coffee, and leafing through the paper, comforts him. At one time, he was a journalist, writing new stories for his own radio station. I point to the box of glittering Christmas cards under my arm, “Let’s send out Christmas cards,” I suggest enthusiastically. He looks at me blankly, “I don’t understand.” I hold up a holiday card with a dazzling snow scene, “I’ll fill them out, and you just sign.” He resists, “I don’t have anyone’s address.” I assure him that I have all the addresses.
While helping him out of bed, he continues to ask, “Where are we going?” I remind him about the Christmas cards. I guide his frail body of 87 years into the cafeteria, which contains a small Christmas tree. Once seated, I ask, “Who do you want to send cards to?” Again, no sign of comprehension, so I suggest sending one to his ex-wife, my mother. He appears confused as if the 20-year-marriage to my mother never occurred. I nudge him, “You know — my mother.” Quickly he agrees, “Yes –let’s send her one,” as if only to ease my distress about his memory deficit. With prompting, he signs several cards for other family members, which he doesn’t seem to know. I notice that his signature is different – barely legible.
We sit for a while, and I attempt conversation, but only solicit one-word responses. Sadly, I prepare to leave, wondering how he will be on our next visit. The losses of Alzheimer’s are profound – not only for the person afflicted but for their loved ones.
I grieve, remembering him as he was younger - clean-shaven, dressed in a stylish sports coat, with a keen intellect. When I was growing up, he always remembered my school performances, but now he doesn’t remember anything about my childhood. I watch with agony as this disease slowly strips away his dignity. Nancy Reagan defined Alzheimer’s as “The Long Goodbye.” I wonder how I can stomach his further decline.
Shared memories knit loved ones together. Holidays are a time to reminisce, but Alzheimer’s steals one’s past. For several years, my father has had neither short-term or long-term memory. He teaches me present-moment living, but I’m a reluctant student. The depth of his love is demonstrated by him remembering me at all. This may be the last Christmas with my dad, so I must transcend my sorrow and enjoy him now. Even though he has lost the capacity to make memories, I can still make them.
— Sandra Bruce is the owner of Clarity Counseling Center of Ellis County, INC, which is located in Waxahachie. For over 24 years, she has been a Licensed Professional Counselor. In her practice, she treats those who have loved ones with Alzheimer's or other related dementias. She specializes in women's issues, couples, addiction, and family counseling. Feel free to contact her at (214)693-7382 or visit her website at www.clarityforelliscounty.com