Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An Alzheimer's lesson

I told my dad on the phone that we had a bear visit our deck last week. It had snowed and I left our bird feeder out overnight. In the morning, surprisingly large bear footprints were framed by the slushy snow.
I laughed as I told the story. I knew we weren't in danger. I knew I could prevent further visits by doing what I should have done that night - not offering any more midnight snacks.
Dad listened carefully. Then, five hours later, he called me back. He was upset. He just couldn't shake the image of a bear threatening us. “Are you safe?” he asked. “Can you do anything to make sure nothing happens?”
We’ve lived in the Colorado mountains for more than 20 years, and we’ve entertained my parents many times with stories about the wildlife that visits our yard – deer, bear, raccoons, a bobcat, foxes, and in the first few years, an elk herd that has since moved on.
My dad was always interested and amused by our tales about the bear we caught clutching a PopTart wrapper in our garage; the deer that stood down our beagle, the fox who trotted up to us with a pillaged hotdog in his mouth.
But this time, there was no laughter; only fear.
My dad has Alzheimer’s. Most days, he keeps it at bay. He loves to talk about politics and sports and the economy. He jokes with my mom and volunteers at a local nursing home and plays a mean game of Gin Rummy.
The disease is hardly recognizable most of the time. But when something worries him, it consumes him. My story about a bear was something he couldn’t let go even though he couldn’t do anything about it; and ultimately, because he couldn’t do anything about it.
So he called me back. “I’m sorry to bother you. But I’m just worried about you,” he admitted. “I know,” I said. “And I appreciate it.”
The next day, I called my parents in the morning. “The bear hasn’t been back,” I reported. “I don’t think you have to worry anymore.”
“That’s good,” my dad said, noticeable relief in his voice. “I’m glad to hear it.”
Alzheimer's is erasing parts of my dad, day by day, but one thing that hasn’t vanished yet is his ability to love and desire to take care of his family. If that love comes through as worry, that’s OK.

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