I cried today in my Spanish class and felt rather silly. When I cry there is no hiding the evidence because my eyes get red and my face distorts and of course my nose runs uncontrollably. So I had to explain to Professor (actually “Profesora”) Jarvis the reason for my unbecoming tears. She had put a beautiful Spanish song on a CD player for us to listen to and the tears came because the music reminded me of my Dad. He loved music and especially that sung in Spanish. He loved to sing it and loved to listen to it. So while the music played, I thought of my Dad and wished he were right there listening with me because he really would have enjoyed it.
Dad died of Alzheimer’s three days before Christmas in 1999—just in time to join the Heavenly Choirs that Heaven must have at Christmas time. His disease lasted for seven years before death mercifully let him rest. It started slowly and then progressed into a terrible fiend. The first we realized that something was wrong was during a game of Boggle. Dad usually could play it so well, but this time he couldn’t spell the words right. It was very alarming because he had always been such a great speller.
Then as the disease progressed, Dad couldn’t make his mouth form the words he wanted to say. One of the last words he could manage was “Snowflake”. He loved Snowflake, Arizona, where he was born and raised. No matter where individuals said they were from, Dad would ask, “What side of Snowflake is that on?”
Alzheimer’s is a dark and dreadful illness. To the victim perhaps it feels like being sucked into a vortex with no chance of escape. And to those who love the victim it is a frantic but hopeless reaching to save. Once in awhile, though, Dad’s Alzheimer’s brought moments of humor, kindness and insight.
One day in Snowflake, my niece, Lori, was going to take him swimming at the town pool so she told him to get his swimming suit on. He came out so ridiculously dressed that if it hadn’t been tragic we could have laughed for hours. His suit was on rather crookedly and he had on one sock that was pulled up to his knee. On his other foot was a shoe and on his face was a look of triumph. He was like a delighted child who had gotten dressed without help and was now ready for a much deserved swim.
Often, Dad refused to go to bed so Mom would have to have someone help her get him there. One day it was my husband, Brad, and my son-in-law, Cory, who came to the rescue. They had to nearly drag him to bed with him angrily resisting the whole way. When they finally got him into bed and covered up, Dad’s manners got the best of him and he said quite kindly, “Thank you!”
As Dad got worse, his countenance became terrible and he even scared himself. Mom finally had to put newspapers over all the mirrors in the house because, looking in the mirror, Dad would think an evil person had intruded and it made him extremely agitated.
Before the mirror quit being his friend, however, a remarkable experience happened that taught me a great lesson and makes me happy still.
Dad had had Alzheimer’s for several years when he, Mom, my sister, Maxine, and I visited a dress shop in Lakeside, Arizona. As Mom was busy looking for dresses, Dad passed a mirror that covered a whole wall of the store. Maxine and I watched in amazement as Dad performed the most interesting charade in front of it. In his sickness, he didn’t realize that it was a mirror and as he passed it, he thought he was seeing a long lost friend. His ability to speak was quite gone by then, but he could make the motion of words. He greeted himself, acting very, very pleased to see this old friend. His arms went out in greeting and his nodding and smiling showed how happy he was. He communicated with himself for about 5 minutes in this very friendly way. (I guess I had let my mouth hang open with incredulity since Maxine quietly suggested that I close it.) Mom was so embarrassed when she caught on to what Dad was doing because, understandably, she had a hard time seeing any humor or bright spot in Alzheimer’s at all. With great annoyance, she told him to stop and to come with her. But Dad kept “talking” to his “friend”. Finally he looked into the mirror, and then pointed to his wife as though he were saying, “Well, it’s been real nice talking to you, but the Mrs. is calling and I’ve got to go now.”
Mom was humiliated, but Maxine and I were in awe for we recognized the priceless lesson we had just witnessed. Dad had done what all of us hope to do—he had looked in the mirror and liked the person he met there. If every mirror could be greeted with a similar fondness, life would be easier all the way around.
Dad liked himself. What a tribute to a life well lived!