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Alzheimer's and My Dad MAG
I have always been a firm believer that a picture is worth a thousand words. Looking through my family's old photo albums, I feel like I am reading a story – a story about the amazing life of my father.
I see a picture of him, tall and handsome, grinning as he skis down a mountain. I see him hugging my mom, their eyes locked together. I see him with a smaller version of me on his lap, his smile huge as he tickles me.
These photographs tell a story I have played only a minor role in. My father's story ends in sadness, but he helped me begin my own tale. Alzheimer's took my father from me long before I was old enough to appreciate him. Yet, all I need to do is take a look at these pictures to find a memory, however faint, of the vibrant man he was.
The pictures show me a completely different man from the one who lives in my recent memory. I remember one of the last times I saw my dad at the nursing home where he lived. That place scared me, with its odd smell that was a mixture of industrial cleaner and despair. I spent most of my visits with my head buried in a book, dying to leave. I didn't understand what was happening to him, why he seemed to look through me, why he called my sister by another name, or why he didn't seem to realize how much I yearned for him to come back.
The man I saw on these visits was not my father, at least, not how I remember him. This man had fallen victim to Alzheimer's, a degenerative disease that attacked his mind, breaking him down mentally and physically until he was barely recognizable.
I do not know when my family started to notice something was wrong. Being young, I was more occupied with Harry Potter and Britney Spears than noticing that my father was more forgetful. I didn't think anything of his neglecting to close the gate to our yard, and I chalked up his constant inability to remember whether he had paid the bills to him just being weird. When I was 11 and my mom told me that my dad was going to be put into a home because he was sick, I began to realize the severity of what was happening.
Have you ever seen those old cartoons with the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote? In almost every episode, the coyote would get hit with an anvil, then sway on his feet with stars dancing around his head. For me, the knowledge that my father would turn into a completely different person was that same darn anvil.
One of the worst things about Alzheimer's was not just how it changed my dad, but how it affected my family. My mom suddenly became a single mother, raising three daughters on a drastically lower budget. We moved to an unfamiliar town, leaving behind my friends and the only home I had ever known. My sisters, once happy and outgoing, became withdrawn and rebellious. Because my mom had to work, I had to learn to live without a constant parental presence and become self-reliant. Gone were the days when I nagged Dad to take me to the beach. Instead, I spent my afternoons by myself, reading or listening to music.
Despite the cloud that hovered over my family in the years before my father died, I know that I matured dramatically in ways that I otherwise wouldn't have. While most 12-year-olds were playing catch with their dads, I was learning to be strong. My father's absence, though painful, spurred me to fall in love with writing and books. When I discovered White Fang, my dad's favorite book, I could imagine him reading it to me. I felt him near me as I wrote, and I could almost hear him laughing with me as I read about the antics of Huck Finn.
My father's love of literature and the written word was probably the most meaningful, although unintentional gift I have ever been given. Like my dad, I found myself in a book, losing myself to the story. I learned how to be brave from Harry Potter, and how to be loyal from Where the Red Fern Grows. These books, along with my dad, inspired me to share my love for prose with others. My father taught me how to appreciate a good novel. Dad was an educator most of his life, and I want to follow in his footsteps. I hope someday to motivate young people to express themselves through writing, or discover a new world in the pages of a book.
My dad's affection for all things written was just a small part of the man he was – before Alzheimer's. He was tall and imposing, with an easy smile that seemed to contradict his towering stature. Dad could walk into a room of strangers and become friends with all of them in mere minutes. He defied the stereotype of a Hispanic man living in Los Angeles, becoming well-educated and ensuring that his children grew up in a comfortable setting. When he was asked for the number of his gardening business while he was trimming our yard – because the person walking by didn't think that a Hispanic man could live in our house – my dad did not get angry. Instead, he chose to challenge society's labels by encouraging my sisters and me to do our best in all facets of life. Dad was also notorious for his sense of humor, and his booming laugh could often be heard echoing through the house. I used to find that laugh annoying, but now I ache to hear it again.
Dad was very active, skiing, biking and swimming. He encouraged my mom to keep going even though she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just two years after they were married. He didn't settle for our whining when he asked me and my sisters to try something new. Ironically though, he could also be quiet. My dad loved the piano, and, like his mother before him, taught us to play. I distinctly remember my father and my sister playing a duet at our grand piano. I was very young, but I recall sitting under the piano, watching their feet sway to the tune.
These memories, however small, are how I like to remember my dad. I don't want to think of that shrunken person in the nursing home, or his plot at the cemetery. Instead, I remember the tall man who taught me how to swim, who let me dance on his shoes, who let me park the car sitting in his lap.
Alzheimer's is a part of the story of my father's life, but it is only a chapter, and it is certainly not the main message of his story. I like to think that my dad's story is more about love and happiness than anything else. It is about Christmas mornings when he revealed toys that won my heart, and evenings when he scrutinized the boys my sisters brought home for the first time. His story ends with Alzheimer's, but I know it is really about so much more.