Saturday, April 10, 2010

Life and Alzheimer's, Part 3

When I've written about Alzheimer's before, I've referred to Ms. Moon's finely written description of The Script, that carefully crafted dialogue developed over months and years and refined almost invisibly over and over again by people who live together, love together, know one another very, very well. It's probably fair to say that families have endless variations on that script; you could almost certainly pinpoint your own without thinking. Tonight's variation is one dealing with repetition of scripts across whole generations of families.

Pop is in the left corner of the photo beside beautiful Helen, and just in front of him is 7- or 8-year old Rick. Cradled in Helen's arms is a tiny bundle you can hardly see: little Rodney. The age difference between the two boys would shape their childhood and in some ways their whole lives, or at least Rodney's life.

What changes were occurring in the marriage in those years; what changes in Pop's life, in Helen's? Stories for another night, my dears, but as has been pointed out by far better-qualified mental health professionals than me, every child grows up in a unique family. A divorce was brewing and would happen when Rick was a teenager and Rod still quite young. And with the ripples of every event, whether ordinary or dramatic, the role of each family member became more and more fixed. When Rodney passed through the adolescent defiance common to boys of his age, Rick had left this stage far behind. Their parents had both remarried. Rick was on his way to a marriage of his own. Rod was finding his way through high school when, after a long illness, Helen died. From the slight distance of a remarried, non-custodeial parent, Pop painted the boys into their respective roles. They would change, through the next 20 years or so but with the resolute march of Alzheimer's the changes would be completely lost on Pop. For the rest of his life, he would deal with Rick as The Good Son, happily married, a successful entrepreneur, reliable and steady. Rod would be The Lesser Son, the one Pop thought of as - and often called - lazy. A hippie. A bum.

When Pop came to live with us in late 2003, our sons were both teenagers, still living at home. They were very different from Rod and Rick; in fact, they were still busy figuring out who they were; they were too unformed to have begun to resemble anyone else. Nevertheless, Pop assigned them the roles he assumed they should have. Mac was like Rick: The Good One. Dylan was like Rod: The Lesser One. That Was That. Sadly, that was that, at the powerful intersection of Family History, Memory Loss, Emotion and Reality.

Alzheiemer's seems to erase memory from the outside in. Deeply held in the "center" of the brain are the things we learned earliest, the things that are fundamental: keeping our bodies clean, combing our hair, making our beds. Memories are built over this foundation, layer by layer: when we were 5, when we were 12, when we were 20, and so on. They are lost in the same order. So for Pop, demented in his 80s, Family History meant his relationships with his own parents, sisters and brothers. Emotion was what connected him to his siblings, his wives. His perceptions of Memory Loss and Reality had only a passing acquaintance with our own. During the work and school day, I worked and the boys went to school. Rod was home, dealing with Pop's unique view of that intersection. Rod would call and say, Just listen to this. And I would hear bitterly angry invective, vicious, hurtful things, screamed at Rodney or Dylan, things I don't think I can ever put into words myself again. But if Mac or I came home, got on the phone, or suddenly caught Pop's notice, the tone and the words would change immediately, softening, losing the will to do as much damage as possible. He was kindness itself to Mac and me, almost without exception.

At a critical point in the story for our family, we had to take Pop to a nursing home. Mac was 15. We took him with us, with his generous consent, because we all understood that his very presence reduced the likelihood of a terrible, angry tantrum, with no limits as to what cruelties might be spoken. Dylan was relieved to be out of the line of fire. And it was just as bad as we thought it might be, but a tale for another long winter's night, my dears.

At the final critical point for Pop, we had to attend his funeral. We made the long drive across the state; Mac made the trip from his Naval posting to meet us. Dylan simply said he would not go. We did not blame him. He had been the brunt of sarcastic ridicule once too often from his grandfather, and would not honor him in death. Mac, never painted with the brush of the less-loved child, was able to withstand the thing, even beyond my own limits of tolerance. I stood in the vestibule and watched Rodney walk alone down the center aisle to say good-bye to his father. Seconds later, I watched Mac walk in his dad's steps, wearing the uniform of the rank his grandfather had himself held in the Navy, catching up with his dad, putting his hand comfortingly on his dad's shoulder. And all this last was in spite of Pop. Having made his bed while in his right mind, he had to lie in it forever, with no possibility of change. Perhaps this is the very worst of Alzheimer's, that no matter how sorely amends need to be made, no matter how much pain might be alleviated in the making of them, mutual peace isn't possible. If you cannot make amends, you may only be able to hope for forgiveness, that gift which is as sweet to its giver as to its recipient.


  1. Wow, Angie, powerful words. My heart aches for Dylan, treated so unfairly at such a vulnerable age. It is his grandfather's loss that he did not see the brilliant sparkle in Dylan's eyes and personality, his keen intellect, his kindness. Please give that young man, and Rodney as well, an extra hug for me today! Love, Lulu

  2. Dear Lulu, thank you for your love and perceptions. Hugs delivered.

  3. This is an amazingly powerful post. You have given me a glimpse into something I hope never to experience (luckily, my family has been blessed with no forays into such territory thus far.) More important, though, you've given me pause to consider what I might wish to change, in my dealings with those I love, and maybe forestall any regrets. Thank you.

  4. Suldog, thank YOU. We talked to someone from a hospice organization in the course of this painful adventure and tried to explain how difficult it was to deal with Pop, he said, "We all have to live with the consequences of our choices, even if we can't remember them," which resonated powerfully with me. It's not an easy read, and I'm positively honored you stuck out the read.

  5. A heartfelt and powerful post. How we interactive with other people can have powerful and irrevocable effect. We must tread lightly, and forever be aware of each other's existence in it's own unique and kind light.

  6. Michelle, thank you so much. The affirmation from you, Suldog and others makes me feel as though I achieved my objective. If anyone is influenced to consider how they deal with the "kind light" (great phrase!) the writing has been worthwhile beyond its power as a therapy for me.


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