Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A recent photo of my father and his new baby: Zach, pictured here at six weeks

Last week, I was at my parents' house one late, raining evening. My dad walked down a dimly lit hallway, and, pausing at the corner, he looked up at me suddenly and said, "Thanks, Shanny pie."

I winced in the darkened living room at the embarrassing nick name.

"For what?" I replied. "I didn't do anything."

"Just think about it," he said, and walked down the hallway into the dark.

* * * * *

I received a message today from my mother around 3 p.m. that simply said to call, that she needed me.

The phone rang precisely half a ring before she picked up.

"Yea?" she said, knowing from the caller id it was me.

My recent birthday was the impetus that prompted my father to finally seek help. My mom asked him over cake how old I was, and he was shocked that he couldn't remember.

"Is Shanny pie one year older or younger than Colleen?" he asked sheepishly.

I am nine years younger than my older sister, Colleen.

It was then that my dad finally agreed to the CAT scan. That scan was yesterday, and the results revealed what we already knew: moderate Alzheimer's.

I was first to suspect it, about two years ago, mostly because of the odd almost Zen-like things my dad would say out of the blue. For a long time my family tried to ignore some of the wacky things he would say. At Easter last year, he brought dinner to a screeching halt when he announced that he would soon take out an ad in the newspaper - complete with his phone number - offering his knowledge to the public, because he knows everything. And he was quite serious.

Sometimes, if listened to with an openness, however, the things he says can seem so poignant. He'll stare off with his thoughtful gray-green eyes and say, "Life is precious. Today is the day the Lord hath made. Be glad and rejoice in it."

My dad has always been a God-fearing man; he will never forget many lines of the Bible and recites them with ease.

But he forgets what year it is, medication, what he ate for lunch.

Since my birthday, my dad reminds me every time I see him how much he loves me.

"I may not remember a lot of things, but I'll always remember my Shanny pie," he'll say. And it chokes me up every time.

What are we if not our minds? What are we when that which we are begins to shrivel and deteriorate?

In people with Alzheimer's, portions of the brain that deal with new memories, planning, and thinking - the cortex - literally shrivel and shrink. Memories fade. Daily activities, planning, simple math becomes impossible. A friend of mine whose dad has Alzheimer's and was a lifelong smoker one day forgot what a cigarette was.

For more information about Alzheimer's and how it effects the brain, click here

Today my mom told me that she was up all night with my father last night because he was hallucinating that he was falling into a black hole. So real were the images, he was terrified and refused to be left alone.

I had to wince, again, at the irony. I can't help but think he is not hallucinating at all. What isn't falling into a black hole, but Alzheimer's?

A friend also wrote of her mother's journey with Alzheimer's recently. You can read her story here.

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