My Dad and Me...And Alzheimer's

“You’re just gonna have to trust me.”

I heard the words fly out of my mouth before I could even think --- unusual for me, who analyzes everything before saying it. Especially noticeable because these particular words were addressed to my Dad.

In that moment, I saw and experienced myself in relation to my Dad in a whole new way --- as an adult. In that moment, I also knew that everything was changing between us. Now he needed me. I was the one with the answers, the solution, the literal map for the way forward.

Dad was lost. Dad, who taught me how to read a map, how to follow road signs. Dad, who I had trusted, always, to lead the way on windy mountain roads, through mountain trails, and through thickets, was lost. On a road with road signs.

About the third time he called me that November night, as he made his way from Georgia to Austin, hauling Grandpa Jim’s baby grand piano in a little trailer behind his truck, I suddenly got it.  

“Oh - I see what’s going on here!!”, I thought. My Dad has a sense of humor, and I assumed he had been teasing with his comments and questions, staying in touch with his calls to stay alert.

In that moment of clarity I realized what was actually happening.

My Dad was confused. And scared. He didn’t know where he was and he didn’t know how to find his way. Then and there, I knew that he had a “thing” going on in his brain, and that I needed to take charge.

Thus began the journey with Dad’s Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis wouldn’t come for a couple more months, and once it did, Dad referred to that trip with the piano, and my knowing that something wasn’t right with him, even though he couldn’t yet acknowledge that at the time. Once the diagnosis came, it made a lot of irritating and strange communications make much more sense.

Dad’s Alzheimer’s forced him into retirement. He had been a physician for almost 50 years. One of those doctors who works 18+ hour days, and goes to work on most of the holidays. Was he a workaholic? Maybe? But mostly, people’s lives depended on him --- he saved a lot of them. He was a Healer.

Being retired, Dad actually stayed in touch with my siblings and me much more than he had previously. We noticed a gentleness about him. He was more considerate and thoughtful. He was attentive, and loving.  

People with Alzheimer’s commonly experience a great deal of emotions in the beginning stages. Dad was a pretty emotional kind of guy anyway, so this wasn’t completely new. In the years just prior to his diagnosis, it seemed that every time we were together there were many tears flowing. It was kind of like a purging.

Dad had begun to express his pain, his sadness, his remorse and regret, for the way his actions during my childhood had impacted my siblings and me, and my mom. It was emotional for me too, because all of the things he had such sorrow and pain about, I had also experienced sorrow and pain from.

I am incredibly appreciative of those conversations ---that Dad was willing to talk about such tender subjects; that he was willing to sit with my pain and his own.

I am a therapist. A Spiritual Director. A DreamWorker. A Contemplative. I had been doing inner work for over 20 years by the time these conversations started taking place. It always amazes me --- and often frustrates me --- that an issue, or a period in life, that I have already spent so much time acknowledging, processing, and doing healing work on, keeps coming back up.  

With the compassionate and gentle approach of my own Spiritual Director, I came to just accept this as part of the journey. She would tell me that “healing is not linear --- healing is like a spiral.”

Even when we are becoming more conscious and intending to resolve our relationship with the past, or with people, we keep coming back around to the same issue, or the same painful memory. But that spiral is open - expanding or drilling down --- so we are constantly moving through, although it often feels like going round and round in circles.

My relationship with my Dad, and the relationship I had with my teenage self, who had experienced the pain of divorce and the impact of my particular family dynamics, had already spiraled around numerous times. I had been doing my work.

It’s not like I was intending to be prepared for my Dad to lose himself, the parts of him that I knew and felt connected and attached to. But that’s what happened. In the moment when I saw clearly, I had already tended to my inner vulnerabilities in such a way that no thinking was required to respond.

To say, “You’re just going to have to trust me, Dad.”

I had created space within so that the deepest parts of my Being ---my inner wisdom and strength---could just flow through.

At least that’s how I’ve come to view it. I was emotionally and mentally prepared to take the reins and go find my Dad --- who was lost.  

I can hear the words, “nothing can prepare you for the decline of your parents,” especially the way that Alzheimer’s hijacks a person’s senses and personality. I think that’s probably true. But I will also tell you that I think there is something that can soften the blow.

And that is to have worked through the "Daddy issues" before the crisis point. To have grown up on the inside. To have listened to the areas of loss and pain and hurt. To have acknowledged how my protectiveness from those vulnerabilities had impacted my life and decisions and relationships.

Dad is now toward the end-stages of Alzheimer’s, requiring him to live in a facility. He can’t communicate very much, and if the hallways were made of grass (I so wish they were!),  he would have worn a path with how much he walks them.

I miss the Dad that he used to be, but I also love the Dad that I find each time I go to visit.

It’s emotional, for sure, initially, not being able to connect in the way that feels natural and comfortable. But I have come to look forward to simply Being with him. Sharing the same space, breathing the same air, knowing that soul and spirit connect in ways that are far beyond words, or reason, or logic.

It only requires my presence and attention; and then, every once in a while, he looks up and holds my eyes with his bright blue gaze. Yes, I am contemplative by nature. I also know that my years of inner work, contemplative prayer, and ability to be in Stillness have prepared me for this.  

I am so grateful.