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By Halli Perrigo
I can’t say I was surprised when I got the phone call from my mother on a chilly March evening letting me know that my father had been officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The disease runs in the family.
Before I was born, my paternal grandmother had succumbed to it, and in the following years, so did one of my paternal aunts and one of my paternal uncles. Just last year, my dad’s younger sister was diagnosed as well. Obviously the gene is present. I had just always hoped that my father would escape its grasp.
But, in the past couple years, I had started to see the signs that this wouldn’t be the case. When I was a child, my father was a strikingly brilliant man. He came from a poor family and never could afford to go to college, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t learn. Everything he put his mind to, he could do.
He taught himself to shred on the guitar. He taught himself to work with wood, to the extent that when I was born, he was remodeling the house we lived in, from the ground up, completely on his own. He was a math genius and could always help me with even the most difficult calculus problems. He taught me to thirst for knowledge and to consider the dictionary my best friend.
I love my dad. But when I was in college, coming home became a chore. I stopped liking him as much. It seemed like he never listened to me when I spoke. He asked me the same questions again and again. He couldn’t follow the stories I was telling. He didn’t remember the names of my closest friends or my roommates. These were always things that he had no problem with in the past, and now, suddenly, he wasn’t the same person. I was angry at him. I felt betrayed.
And I kept those feelings to myself.
Finally, when I had graduated and moved even further away, to Arizona, for an AmeriCorps position, my mother brought up those same feelings to me.
“Have you noticed something different about your father?” she asked me over the phone one afternoon.
“Uh, yeah,” I responded. “I’ve noticed something different for a while.”
My mother and I went on to talk about what we’d seen. She’d had a more difficult time recognizing his deterioration because she was around him every day. But for me, someone who saw him only a couple of times a year, the differences with each visit were stark.
That conversation triggered a series of tests and doctor visits for my father. He was tested for ADD (something I had been diagnosed with in high school). He saw a therapist for possible depression. He went through a series of brain scans and medications that did nothing until his doctors came to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with him. In March of 2012, after several months of seeing specialists, his diagnosis was official. There was nothing else that it could be, especially with his family history.
At 56, my father was officially suffering from Alzheimer’s.
By then I had moved back home to my native Portland. I remember when my mother told me the news over the phone, holding it together until she hung up, and then melting into tears right where I was standing. I met a friend at a bar and very nearly cried into my beer. He was sweet and concerned, and he tried to take my mind of it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about my father’s diagnosis. I continued to think about it, almost constantly, all summer.
And then when fall hit, and the dark Maine winter started creeping in, I crumbled.
I had just been unceremoniously deemed “not the one” by the guy I was casually seeing, and the one-two punch left me feeling all alone in the world. I worried about everything. I worried about the day that I would go home and my father wouldn’t know my name. I worried he would die before I got married or before had children. I worried that one day I, too, would be staring in the face of Alzheimer’s.
I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I thought my friends wouldn’t understand. I thought my mother was under too much stress herself for me to feel comfortable unloading on her.
So I went to see a therapist.
I had seen a therapist briefly twice before, once in high school and once in college, for the “typical” depression that can accompany major life changes, but they had been terrible experiences that resulted in me being prescribed meds that I really didn’t need or want.
My new therapist was different. I had chosen her myself, and she seemed to truly understand me. She gave me the language I needed to talk about what I was experiencing. She really listened to the things that I was telling her and offered insight and helpful coping strategies. I became really invested in incorporating those strategies into my life, and something happened. I felt everything shift.
I learned to ask myself if what I was worrying about was something I had any control over. If it wasn’t, I learned to honestly let it go. If it was, then I learned to do what I could to prepare for it, or fix it, and then move on. I learned to live for the sake of living the first time in my adult life.
And I credit my father with this: being forced to face his mortality made me also face my own. There is a very real possibility that I could find myself in the same situation as him. And I want to be able to look back on my life and know that I made the most of every moment. I’ve finally gotten to a place where I can do that.
I go to my parents’ house for dinner every Sunday to spend time with father, try out new recipes with my mother, and share a home-cooked meal with the two people I love the most in the world. My dad doesn’t always remember what I tell him, I often find myself repeating things, and yes, one day I may show up and he won’t remember my name.
But if the doctors are right, in eight to ten years, my dad won’t be around anymore. And I’ll know that I spent all the quality time that I could with him, and that I was truly present, not lost in my own worry.
And for all these things, I am grateful.