My Forgetful Father: the Blessing in Alzheimer's

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My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year. I was the first one to realize something was really wrong, about eighteen months ago. On the day after Thanksgiving, I had helped my father carry the Christmas ornaments up from the basement. My mother (who loves the Container Store) had carefully stored each ornament in individual boxes.

            “Do we need to keep these empty boxes?” my father had asked.

            “Do not throw them away,” my mother answered, slowly emphasizing each word. My father has a lifelong urge to throw out useless things. “We will need them after Christmas.”

            Just before New Year’s, I went down to the basement, carrying an armload of larger ornaments down with me. My father had pulled out all the Christmas storage bins. The individual ornament boxes were gone.

 

My father is in his mid-seventies now. My grandfather was serving in Europe during World War II when he was born, and his first memory of his own father was of being frightened by the strange man who had come to live with them. He grew up the middle child with siblings who frequently teamed up to blame him for their own small misdemeanors. His mother frequently slept in (I wonder now if she suffered from depression), leaving my father and his siblings, even as young elementary school students, to make their own lunches and get themselves to school. And my great-grandmother, who I think must have been the only loving maternal presence in my father’s life, died on his fourth birthday. He still refuses to celebrate his birthday because of it.

            All of us have barriers, walls, that we put up to shield ourselves from deep wounds, strategies we use to deal with the effect of the Fall in our lives. My father’s coping strategies have always been lying and anger. To most people, even these were hidden behind a stoic, humorous exterior.

            But these things made it hard to be his daughter. I remember often being afraid of him, and of his anger, when I was a child. He rarely told me that he loved me, or showed it.

            Our relationship worsened when I became Christian at age 17. Earlier in his life he had left the Catholic Church he was raised in with a lot of bitterness and became an atheist. He accused me of joining a cult, or of not being smart enough to realize what I had gotten myself into. We did not speak for about a year. I worried that he would never speak to me again.

            I gradually smoothed things over enough that we could resume a relationship but learned not to expect anything more. There was too much in his past that he was unwilling to look at.

            The hardest part about my father’s diagnosis, for me, was that I had hoped that one day he would meet Jesus and that his walls would come down. That, at the end of his life, we might be able to enjoy the kind of relationship I wish we’d had when I was younger. I believe Jesus can speak to anyone, even those with rapidly advancing dementia. But I have had to mourn the loss of the hope of a closer relationship with my father. We probably only have two years left where he will know who I am.

 

My mother asked, “What did you do with the boxes the ornaments were in?”

            “I didn’t do anything with them,” he said, immediately defensive.

            “They aren’t downstairs. Did you throw them away after I told you not to?”

            “I didn’t throw anything away,” he said, quickly getting angry.

            “Who else would have gone down there?” my mother asked. “You must have thrown them away!”

            “I didn’t throw anything away!” he yelled.

            His anger in that moment felt different. It had grown from zero to rager in an instant, and suddenly he was cursing, stamping his foot, slamming things down. For the first time as an adult, I felt afraid of him.

            Then I saw it. It wasn’t the anger of a liar who had been caught. It was the anger a toddler has who is frustrated at not being understood.

            Of course he threw out the ornament boxes. (I later found one in the recycling bin.) But he didn’t remember that he did. And he couldn’t understand why we remembered differently.

 

When I went to visit last month, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought that as the Alzheimer’s progressed, as he lost the ability to keep up the walls around his old wounds, my father’s anger might get out of control. Alzheimer’s often causes an increase in anger and irritation, while other emotions may, as the disease progresses, become muted.

            What I saw was that his ability to control his emotions is indeed being taken away. He still feels them, at least for now, but he can’t hide them. There is no wall anymore to hide it behind, so anger just flares and then fizzles.

            But without a wall, suddenly my father’s other emotions are visible too.

            Because Alzheimer’s is stripping away his defense mechanisms as well as his memory, for the first time in my life or his, my father is able to express his love. What a gift. And what a reminder that God has blessings for us even in the hardest seasons.

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Helen Peters Stone is a writer living in New England.