My dad will be 85 this December. He’s in terrific physical shape, and is still quite proud he has hair and that much of it is not yet grey. He is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, with very little short-term memory. Much of the time he is in good spirits, and I am forever indebted to the people who care for him at Putnam Farm in Danvers (MA), an assisted living facility. Every Friday, Dad and I Skype, no matter where in the world I am. Our conversations are similar, week to week. Yes, everyone is in good health. No, none of the kids are married.
Alzheimer’s disease takes away the brain’s abilities to think, to remember, to reason. You can use a metaphor of file cabinets. Those of us without the disease can pull files out and open them easily, chatting about what we had for lunch, aware of whom we are talking to, able to know where we are–not just the room, but the decade and the season and the time of day. People with Alzheimer’s can pull out some of the files, but they’re often not in good order, or seem written in a foreign language. Some pull out the same, familiar file and go with that. Over time, the files become hard to open, and are sometimes locked.
Dad, a Boston College grad, a writer of poetry who once handled crossword puzzles with ease, can still open a bunch of files. Some Skype visits are great, and he’s animated and able to chat easily. Words flow in the right order. The jokes he’s told a million times are delivered easily. He thanks God for good sleep. He thanks God 3, 4, 5 times for good sleep in any conversation. Sometimes, though, the words almost make sense, but one or two aren’t the right ones, and I am not sure what he’s saying. He’s alert enough to recognize that, and gets embarrassed, trying to figure out what to say to move the conversation along. He often finds a way at points like that to thank God for his good sleeping, and we all take refuge to that well-trod territory.
I don’t tell Dad anymore about any of my kids’ birthday, or mine, which is tomorrow. I used to, and he would feel badly that he hadn’t remembered, and hadn’t sent a card. He and my mom were great card-senders. In their last years together, before Mom died in 2003, they were amazing in their careful selection of cards, their use of stickers and colored pens (even when I was well into my 40’s), their thoughtful messages, their tenacity to put the cards in the mail well in advance of events. Dad did okay in remembering birthdays, and often sent cards, for a few years after Mom died.
I have had no expectation of a birthday card from Dad in recent years, and that’s fine. So when I received a card yesterday in the mail with his return address on the envelope–though the writing was my friend Sheila’s–I wondered what was up.
Sheila and I have known each other since before we had drivers’ licenses, when we rode our bikes from Danvers to Peabody along Route 114. You’d never let your kids do that today. Yet here we are, still alive, still very good friends. She had visited Dad this week.
Sheila included this note to me in the envelope: “When I visited with your dad yesterday, we were talking about age, birthdays. I mentioned your birthday was a week away, and your dad panicked. I went out and asked a nice aide if there were any extra greeting cards–hurray, she found one.
“I gave Dad the card and he very intently began writing. He twice asked me about spelling but he was fine. I never spoke while he wrote. At one point he said ‘My handwriting is awful.’ Said I, ‘It’s always been awful,’ and we smiled.
“It took your dad nearly 30 minutes to write his message to you. I took a cell photo for your memory book as this is such a precious gift from him.
“While your dad may have forgotten much, his always strong love for you remains true and devoted. This is the gift that keeps on giving.
Your Dad is amazing.”
Here’s the message Dad wrote to me in the birthday card:
That is the most beautiful, perfect present ever. I tear up a bit every time I look at it. What a gift. Thank you, Sheila, for helping Dad send me this card. I am so very grateful to her for her warmth, her thoughtfulness, and her compassionate heart, as we walk this journey with my Dad, who loves her very much also.
When I Skyped with Dad yesterday, he didn’t remember Sheila’s visit, and he didn’t remember it was almost my birthday. It doesn’t matter at all. In that moment when he was writing the card, Dad was writing with memories and love. That’s all that matters.