“The thing about Alzheimer’s is that it’s sort of like all these little, small deaths along the way before they physically die.” -Lucinda Williams
The world slowed to a pause; movement-control orders were in place at almost every corner of the globe. Everyone had no choice but to stay home. Away from their families, away from their loved ones, away from regular life. It was then that I realised how much of my life I had taken advantage of- no one ever realises what they have until it’s gone.
My father was old-fashioned because he loved to write letters. “It helps display emotions in a more raw way”, he would say. With the increased distance however, he adapted to emailing. It was his way of preserving an old habit and modifying it along with the changing times.
Somewhere during the pandemic, the emails stopped coming.
I called my sister a few times over the week to check up on my father. I lived in Hong Kong for work, which meant the travel restrictions did not allow me to return home quickly. It was a known fact that his health was slowly deteriorating. He was, after all, 86 years old. I knew there was always a possibility that this would happen; it was hereditary- but I hoped everyday that he wouldn’t develop it.
The doctor diagnosed my father with Alzheimer’s. The pandemic meant that I could not visit him. So, I stayed in Hong Kong and prayed to God that the effects on him were not severe. The disease is known not only to be the cause of memory loss but to also affect language and thought. This was something that had always been at the back of my mind as my grandmother too had Alzheimer’s. However, that did nothing to soften the blow of the news.
It had been months when I set foot into the old-rickety house that I knew so well. My sister had greeted me at the door with a smile; it was clear that she was trying to put up a strong face for the rest of us. The feeling of sadness and longing flooded me- I was not naive, I could see through the new wrinkles in her face, evident signs of ageing due to the stress of it all.
Growing up, my father was not a particularly affectionate man. He was a police chief which meant that he was rarely home, working around the clock. He held his position at a time when criminal activity was widespread in our country. Every day he left home, we knew there was the risk of something terrible happening, but he never failed us. No matter how long he was away, he always returned with a smile on his face- ready to tell us the story of his latest victory. In my head, my father has always been a strong man. He never cried, never complained, never showed even the slightest signs of weakness. He wanted to be strong for us.
As I stepped foot into the living room, I braced myself for the worst. There he was, in his regular chair but looking frailer than ever before. He showed traces of the man I last saw about two years ago, but the man in that chair did not seem like the strong figure I had grown to be familiar with. When he noticed my presence, he slowly turned to face me. Tears had already begun to well up in my eyes but it was when a blank stare greeted me that I broke.
I called out to him and ran across the room. I fell at his feet and felt like his little girl again. There I was, a 47-year-old woman crying at the feet of her father, begging for him to remember. As the tears rolled down my face, I knew that the overwhelming emotion I felt was not doing anyone any better. So, I pulled myself together and looked deep into my father’s eyes, “Hi Dad, remember me? I’m your daughter- I’m Mariam.”
He responded with a slur of words that I could not decipher, a trace of a smile on his face. I hoped that although he could not communicate or remember well, somewhere inside his mind is a memory of his eldest daughter, his family and his life he used to tell stories of so proudly.
I tried to engage in conversation with him by telling him the same tales he used to tell us growing up. While describing my stories, his gaze would wander to different corners of the room; perhaps he was trying to remember- trying to grasp at even the slightest hint of the man he was.
I found comfort in the idea that he was still there, the same father I grew up with. Although, I knew there was no way to be sure. The saddest part of it all was the juxtaposition of the man with so much humour and excitement in life to the frail and sick man he was today.
It is hard trying to grasp that your parents are growing older; for most people, the picture painted in their minds of their parents is strong, loving, and kind. Pictures of people who would be able to weather any storm and protect them from the monsters under their bed. Everyone ages, but it is always hard to comprehend when it reaches a certain point.
In the months that followed, I moved into my dad’s home. My siblings and I all pitched in on where it was that we could give our father the best care he could receive. In the beginning, we took turns telling the same stories he used to tell to us and went through photo albums with us by his side. There was usually little to no response, but we relished in the idea that perhaps, inside his mind, he remembers.
Eventually, we stopped, thinking that the inability to remember could frustrate him. Instead, we tried to adapt with the knowledge that our father has Alzheimer’s. There was nothing else we could do. We could not, by any means, bring him back. It was as if he was gone from the beginning. I knew I should not think of it that way, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was grieving.
I wish I could have one last conversation with him to thank him for everything he has ever done for me. Tell him that I loved him more than words could describe. Tell him that I am proud of him. I wish that I could have just been there.
In the years that followed, he faded more and more into the background. His condition became a mere fact and the care we gave him just became a part of routine. I accepted that my father had Alzheimer’s and moved on with my life. There was no point in being upset by it for a prolonged period of time, he would not have wanted that.
My siblings and I tried to incorporate more family time into our lives with hopes that- although there wasn’t much of a sign- it made him happy to be in such a lively atmosphere. He might not have said much during these gatherings, at times, he would be too tired to even sit in the living room with us, but we tried our best to not abandon him. Was that a guilty thought? Maybe to a certain extent, but in situations like these- aren’t we all a little guilty?
Alzheimer’s patients have a life expectancy of three to eleven years after diagnosis. I just hope that the next few years of his life, would not feel like he’s trapped in a body- unable to communicate or remember. I hope that he is living his life as carefree as possible as the burden of remembering is a heavy one.
“They may not be able to remember who we are, but they feel us just the same.”
– Amanda Dillon
By: Diya Aisha