In the beginning, the flickering is so subtle that it’s almost subliminal. A forgotten word, a moment of confusion; nothing that can’t be chalked up to something else. A senior moment. My dad and I were talking one day, and he started a sentence with, “My wife says…” As if maybe I wasn’t familiar with his wife.
“You mean, Mummy?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Right.” He looked momentarily confused but recovered nicely. “So Mummy said…”
Well, that was weird, I thought, but then we moved on, the conversation got back to whatever it was supposed to be about, and, whatever. He’d always been a little goofy.
“It’s not like Daddy was ever normal,” I remember saying once, before we knew.
Eventually, inevitably, the flickers become more alarming. CT scans are done. Tests are administered. “Draw hands on this clock, Ed,” the doctor says. “Show what it looks like at two-thirty.” My dad would look at me, eyebrows raised as if to say, “I don’t even know what this is about, do you? Should I go along? I’ll just go along. Maybe we can laugh about it later.” And I or my mother or sister would smile and shrug. It’s totally weird, Dad! Just go with it anyway!
Of course by then, it’s kind of too late. You’re going with it whether you want to or not.
You get the diagnosis – “suspected Alzheimer’s Disease” – and after the panic and sadness and disbelief settle in, you think: yeah. We should have known, right? That time he couldn’t remember what shoes were called. That time he tried to order a beer at Eat N Park. How didn’t we know? Shouldn’t we have known?
He was flickering, and now he’s fading. And somehow you missed the transition.
One thing you can say about Alzheimer’s Disease, though – it’s different for everyone. Some go from flicker to fade so fast your head spins; others suffer a slower but no less agonizing decline. Some wander; others sit down and stop speaking. Some turn mean. My dad has actually become nicer. His progression has been slow, so slow that you almost don’t notice every tiny little change until one day, you think back to five years ago or see him in a video from when your kids were babies and realize, wow. I guess he has changed, after all.
One day, sometimes sooner and sometimes later, the balance tips. That’s when you notice that the flickers of confusion have become flickers of clarity. Because confusion is the norm, now. The fade is taking over.
The flickers are what kill me.
People have asked me how long my dad’s memory lasts. Like, has he retained his long-term memory, but he can’t remember yesterday? Or has he forgotten his childhood but can remember what he had for breakfast? My answer has been the same for quite some time now: no to all of it. He doesn’t remember his childhood, he doesn’t remember his adulthood. He doesn’t remember this morning. He doesn’t remember the beginning of a sentence by the time he has reached the end of it. One time in my car, he would not stop pressing the lock/unlock buttons on the door. “DAD,” I said, after maybe the twentieth click-click. “Quit it. Quit touching those buttons.”
“What buttons?” he said. Click-click.
And that’s all fine, for the most part. I mean it’s not fine, but we’ve more or less gotten used to it. You have to get used to it. There’s just not much choice in the matter. Getting used to it does not mean ever getting to like it — it just means no longer wishing things could be different. Because they can’t. Alzheimer’s is one disease where fighting it, at least in our current state of medical advancement, is always a losing proposition.
So instead, you accept it. You watch your parent or grandparent or sibling or spouse deteriorate into what is basically just a living, breathing body with a barely functioning brain. There are times that I visit my dad and he does nothing but stare out the window and say, “Boy, look at the bricks out there. Beautiful,” over and over and over again. I have learned that by “bricks” he means “trees.” I forgot myself and corrected him, once. “Oh, you mean the trees,” I said.
“What trees?” he said.
And yet, there are moments where my real dad is there, so clearly that the reminder – this is what he was like – can take your breath away. My mom and I visited him yesterday, and since it was a nice day, decided to take him outside. I fell behind as we walked down the hall to the elevator. My dad stopped in his tracks, looked around him and said, “Where’s Missy?”
Let me tell you. My dad might not remember my name when he’s looking right at me. He certainly doesn’t remember a person he can’t see. He does not question where he’s going, or who with, or where the third person in his party has gone off to.
But, “Where’s Missy?” he said, just like I was a little kid lagging behind at the amusement park. Like I was his daughter, and he needed to keep track of me. Like his current situation is something he’s able to keep track of.
It doesn’t pay, thinking about how things might be if only. My dad used to go places and visit people, he joked and laughed and called us idiots. He talked to animals. When my sister was very young, he actually had her believing that the animals talked back to him. He doesn’t do any of that anymore, and I don’t torture myself by thinking of what kind of grandfather he might be, if it weren’t for this disease. As I said, it just doesn’t pay.
He’s fading, and you have to get used to it.
But the flickers — well. The flickers will get you every time.