22 March 2012

'Fishing for the Words'

An Elderly Couple, Jan Gossart, painted 1525-30

The other day I posted Day of Prayer for Dementia here and on Association of Catholic Women Bloggers. (A few of us priests were invited to join). The same day SherryTex posted Fishing for the Words on the latter. I am reproducing it here.

My dad has Alzheimer's.  

We don't talk about it much if for no reason other than, it hurts.
He is still Dad. He will always be Dad; but the shell of him is being slowly stripped away. Word loss creep first led to fewer letters. I've saved them all. When he visits, we get to eat together, to share the chaos that is my life and laugh a bit, sometimes it overwhelms him --which is reasonable; they overwhelm me sometimes too.

Alzheimer's is brutal and it's ongoing and it makes my heart howl sometimes when I know he's fishing for the next word, the next thought and they all get away. When my grandmother had it, I remember I did what I could to joke it away whenever possible, and I could usually make her laugh. "You always get to go new places. You always meet new people. You can claim you met anyone you want to and impress because we'll never be certain and neither will you." We had a good laugh about that as I helped her get her "doll face" on, she loved for me to draw her eyebrows.

Even late into the disease, Coco and I could still laugh a bit at this hard thing; one time she came into the dining room saying "This cereal tastes terrible." I looked at the silver tray she'd filled with granola and salsa. "Yes, I bet it did." I deadpanned. She smiled at me, she knew it was a bit of a rub. The ability to joke at it took some of the razor edge off, but this time, I can't laugh.

It's too close, too near, too sharp and too soon. Even though it's been ongoing, it still feels like a hard slap whenever we get to a new barrier of "we can't." and that's made harder by being only able to walk in spirit with my folks on this road to the cross because we live so far away.

Dad's still here and sometimes, he's really still here. He can sing with his son if his son coaxes him along and he loves his grandchildren fiercely. He knows the mass and he tries to read things. Sometimes he can.
He still laughs at movies and enjoys company and wants to participate and Mom fiercely takes every opportunity to bring him to those places and people he loves as often as possible.

So today, I am grateful my brothers and sister and I wrote stories about our dad back in 2007, capturing his habits, loves, and our favorite memories.  Now a days, I can read it and have a mental snapshot of some of the wonderful things my Dad is and always was; because Alzheimer's can make everyone else forget what was wonderful and magnificent and beautiful about a person over time, as they are less able to be present and witness to others. It is then that those that love the person who has Alzheimer's must do the remembering.

Christ understood how we remember, by analogy, by familiarity, by meals, by ritual, by words. I at the very least, am not a linear thinker and as such, can tell you the lyrics of a song but not which year the song came out. It gives the impression of someone who jumps from thought to thought, because in reality, that is how my brain operates, in lots of jumps and arcs, very little of my thought process is a grid.

I miss the hooks to old jokes and puns and memories that Dad by citing six thousand books (all of which he had read and I should read by the way) in a single conversation would prompt. I have to prompt them myself to recall his teaching me how to tie knots for a boat, to play poker and make a pina colada. He also cultivated in me a love of Catholic writers that continues to deepen to this day but that seed took a long time to germinate. When we drove across country in a car where only one side door opened when I finished graduate school, he had me read City of God aloud to keep us from growing bored on the road. I told him that sometimes the tone felt like Saint Augustine would walk through town, see something that ticked him off and go back to his room to write it up as an op-ed. He laughed. He'd send me books and articles hoping one day I'd be caught on fire by the stuff. It took, but it took the better part of the past 20 years and now, it is my bed time reading and I wish I wish I wish I could really share it with him.

I can remember him chopping ingredients for gumbo and thus the gumbo recipe. I can remember him strumming the guitar and singing, I've taught some of those songs to my children. They don't always get why I love the song "My old man's a sailor..." but that's okay, hearing their voices evokes his voice; and I get a lump in my throat at church when I hear him sing; it would make me stop singing to listen, but then he'd give me a glare as if to say, "Why aren't You singing?" because that's what we're supposed to be doing at that point.

When a person has Alzheimer's, the first thing to go, are words. They can't remember the word they wanted, the memory evoked won't come into focus, the present goes out of focus and everything is as it isn't. The world becomes a confusing tide of memory, present and unexplained gaps and holes where people and books and ideas and jokes and dreams and pains and loves should be. I don't pretend to be an expert on treatment or care or the long term process or an authority on this of any kind. I'm just his daughter, and I miss his words, his new thoughts, his old puns, all of it.

Part of my present and my past is missing with his memory, like a story he wrote for me in 8th grade. Dad wrote about my very awkward adolescence on an old computer. It was in a word program that no longer exist. So when my modern machine translates it, it becomes gibberish. The story is there, the information is there, it just can't be accessed. I love that story and will have to share it in my own words with my children; but I'd rather have them hold the pages with his words.

Alzheimer's is exactly like that.

I still can't quite laugh, my brain starts to tease about it and I wince. But I know, it is only his brain that is decaying, not his soul and recalling that, fixing on that, it does not ache as much.

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