My dad has been living with Alzheimer’s for eleven years. He seems to be nearing the end of his life now and I flew down to see him last weekend, maybe for the final time. It’s possible I might make it down again before he dies but who can say. Every time I leave him feels like the last time.
His illness has, at times, felt endless. Glacial in its drifting toward a different way of being. And it’s raised so many questions about personhood and identity and care. I’ve been helped by the work of theologian Dr. John Swinton, particularly his book “Dementia: Living in the Memories of God.” He suggests that it’s not our capabilities that make us a person. It’s not our ability to remember things that makes us who we are but, rather, the remembering of the community and the remembering of God.
What strikes me most — something else that Swinton touched on — is the way so many aspects of my relationship with my dad have shifted. So many things have fallen away. We can no longer debate (read: annoy) one another over theology. We can no longer heckle each other over politics or social policies. We can’t go fishing together. He can’t play with my kids. He can’t enthuse over my work as a writer or play his guitar for me or tell me about the time he pushed his brother off a tractor when they were kids.
In some ways, it feels as though there is nothing left. There is just him and me, sitting alone together in a tiny room in a small town in California. We sit and we gaze at one another. Sometimes I feel a faint flicker of something (recognition?) behind his eyes as he looks at me, sometimes I don’t. Much of the time he sleeps. He sleeps and I tuck the blanket around his legs, kiss his forehead, hold his hand, and remember.
I remember the way his church shoes clicked on the kitchen linoleum on Sunday mornings before church. I remember convincing him to buy me a pair of Air Jordans in third grade and how sheepish he looked when I proudly showed them off to my mom. I remember the way he wept when our dog died and how he washed and waxed my beat up 1993 Geo Prism for hours before my wedding day so that Jason and I could drive away in a clean, albeit junky, car. I remember how he jumped in his own car and drove 13 hours straight up to Seattle when I went into labor with Gryffin. How he cleaned the baseboards and ordered take out and made endless runs to the grocery store when Isaiah arrived eighteen months later.
So much is gone and yet so much remains. Life and death and all of the mundane and marvelous things in between are an ever-expanding mystery. The last coherent thing my dad said to me was in February 2020 during my last visit before everything shut down. We sat on the couch in his room at the memory care facility where he’d been living for eight months. The boys had found his favorite hymn and queued it up and we all sat in silence, listening. At the end of the song I turned to my dad and his eyes were closed. I thought he was asleep. But then he opened them, turned to me and said, “That sent chills to the bottom of my feet.”
I’ve thought about that moment and those words perhaps more than any other. It’s what kept me going through all the long months of quarantine when I couldn’t see him and they are what’s getting me through now, as we watch and wait for the end. Would that we all have moments like that one. Moments where something — a song, a mountaintop, a perfect espresso or a big belly laugh — cleaves the dark and the despair, or just the drab dailiness of it all, and so moves our spirit that it sends a thrill of pleasure all the way to our feet. Selah.