One of Dad’s first symptoms of Alzheimer’s was his inability to keep track of the days of the week.
Over two years ago, in July of 2009, I was driving to Dayton to visit my parents and I called to let them know I was on my way. Dad answered the phone.
“Are you going to go exercise today?” I asked him. Since he had been under the care of a cardiologist, he regularly went over to the monitored exercise facility at a nearby hospital.
“I don’t go on Sundays,” he said.
“It’s Wednesday,” I told him.
“Well, I’m not going anyway.”
I don’t know why my dad always thought it was Sunday. Maybe it was because he was raised by an extremely religious mother, and was a devout Catholic himself. The faith, the sacraments, attending Mass on Sunday morning, all those things were important to him.
This past Saturday Mark and I took dinner up to Mom and Dad to share with them. We were sitting around the kitchen table eating when Dad started making a motion with his hand over the wheel of his chair. I knew he wanted something but I didn’t know what. Mom and I both tried to ask him specific questions, but were unable to get to the bottom of it.
“Say what you what,” Mom said. “Maybe we should get the whiteboard out for him.”
“Maybe he needs a hankie,” Mom said noticing that his nose had started to run. I got one for him and that seemed to solve the problem. I also got the whiteboard and placed it on the table beside him.
Our conversation drifted to my memoir about Annie. I try not to bring Annie’s name up too much around Dad because it always makes him cry. But I had talked about the book at a nearby college class earlier in the day and I wanted to tell Mom about it.
Dad reached for the whiteboard and marker and started to write. “I” he wrote clearly. And then he wrote what looked like an “a” followed by what might have been multiple “m’s.” He was writing in cursive with small letters and a thick pen that all ran together. He also was not spacing the letters well and they were on top of each other. I had to watch the movement of his hand and try to guess the letter he was making.
“I am?” I asked.
He nodded. Then he continued to write what I was eventually able to decipher, with some effort, “in a. . .”
I had absolutely no clue what he wrote next. I guessed. Mom guessed. “You are in a what?” Mom asked. I asked Dad to print the letters really big. He wouldn’t. I started getting a sick, panicky feeling in my gut. What if I can’t figure out what he is trying to say? I thought. He was trying to communicate and I wasn’t able to understand. I got more desperate and tried to tease it out of him.
“Why don’t you say the word,” I suggested, “and I will spell it for you.” I think he got the joke, by the way he darted a look at me. My dad was always a big tease, and he could take what he could dish out.
All of a sudden, out of Dad’s mouth the word “quandary” came, clear as day. Jaw-dropping amazing. How did he manage to enunciate that word when he rarely speaks at all?
Uh oh, I thought. This was not going to be a simple “Pass the lima beans,” request.
“What are you in a quandary about?” I asked. Now I was really worried. Dad was upset, confused, or concerned about something and I might not be able to figure it out. We were talking about Annie, so I thought that it had something to do with her. “Write it down, Dad.”
“My daughter,” he wrote. “Which daughter?” I asked. “Are you in a quandary about Annie?” He nodded. Then I started to sweat. We had been at this for what seemed like an hour, although I suspect it was only several minutes. I started making guesses. I was afraid he didn’t remember that Annie had died.
“Are you wondering where Annie is?” He shook his head. “You remember that she died, and she’s gone now?” He nodded and began to cry. “What is it that you’re worried about?” Then I added, “You don’t have to worry about her now. She’s happy. She’s in heaven.”
He went back to the whiteboard and wrote something that looked like “Did a prt” and I eventually deciphered as “Did a priest,”
“Are you worried that she didn’t receive her Last Rites?” I asked. He nodded. The weight of the world dropped off my shoulders.
“She did, Dad. I was there. Mom and I both were there. Father Meyer came to the hospital early one morning and celebrated the Anointing of the Sick with us for Annie.”
“I told you about it, Jerry,” Mom said. “I hope you remember this time.”
Pulling threads of intelligible communication out of the Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles of Dad’s once-sharp brain was like wringing a drop of water out of a stone-dry sponge. But we got there. Thankfully, we did.