Lessons From My Father and Alzheimer’s: Strength, Perseverance and Dancing

I comb his hair and ask, “Feel like going for a walk?”

He smiles, points at his feet.

I get his shoes. Slip-ons these days. Easier for both of us to manage.

It is 20 feet from his front steps to the sidewalk that runs up and down the street where he lives. Where we both live now. It will take us 10 minutes to cover those 20 feet plus another minute to be certain the gate is properly closed. There was a time when my father could swim across a lake in 11 minutes.

It will take us half an hour to walk half a block. He will stop to remove every pebble, every twig, every leaf, everything that does not belong on the sidewalk.

He has taught me to be more patient with him than he ever was with any part of his life.

After our walk, I take him to A&W for onion rings and root beer. He will study every onion ring carefully. I will hold the mug of root beer for him while he drinks. He cannot lift it on his own. I once saw him swim across the lake, chop down a 40-foot tree, trim it, drag it to the lake and swim it back to where he would use it to build a dock. I have never known anyone as strong as he was.

He has taught me to be stronger than I thought I could be.

Later, we will watch the Weather Channel for a couple of hours before I bathe him, change him and tuck him in. He lifts the blanket, points to his feet and smiles. He likes to sleep with his socks on. I remember the day he cracked two ribs but refused any help from anyone to get his socks off and on.

He has taught me there is more to perseverance than I imagined.

I go to bed hating Alzheimer’s. Hating that I know so much about it, and nothing about it. Hating that my father and millions like him have no idea why the memories they spent a lifetime so carefully scrapbooking in their minds have been so slowly, methodically erased. Hating that I have learned how to hate.

In the dead of night, I hear him cussing. I find him at the window, shaking his fist at the first snow of the season. When I was younger, he would wake me and say, “It’s snowing. Let’s get out there and clear the driveway so your mom and sisters don’t get snowed in.” My mother passed on years ago, and my sisters have long since moved into their own homes, but I say to him, “Let’s get out there and clear the sidewalk.” He smiles. We get dressed and go sweep the snow from the sidewalk. When we are finished, he cups my face in his hands, looks into my eyes and nods once.

He has taught me there is more to having a sidewalk with no snow on it than having a sidewalk with no snow on it.

There is more. You who are caregivers know there is so very much more. It is not easy watching your parent (or anyone) go through this, but if you listen, if you watch, you will see and hear it — “I have more to teach you.”

My father was in a wheelchair. There was music playing. He held out his arms. I danced with him. My sister filmed it on her phone. I did not know why my father had a tear in his eye.

A week later, my father died. My sister emailed me a copy of the video of he and I dancing. I had not noticed the song we were dancing to was, “Time to Say Goodbye.”

The last thing my father taught me, with a tear in his eye, was to dance to the song being played.

Follow this journey on Old Friends Endless Love.

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Thinkstock image by Astrid Gast

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