Today is my father’s birthday. But he doesn’t know that. At age 78, my dad has middle stage Alzheimer’s Disease. He was diagnosed several years ago, but I still cannot believe it or fathom how this happened. My paternal grandmother was sharp as a tack and clear minded until a massive stroke took her life at the age of 85.
For most of his life, my father was fit and strong due to his commitment to exercise and martial arts training. As a child, I knew that my dad was invincible. As a young adult, I knew that I was safe and protected, as my father’s martial arts skills were unmatchable. As a new parent, I realized that my dad did everything that he could to raise my brother, sister and me to live happily. As an adult striving to always be fit and well, I envisioned my father and Sensei teaching martial arts until he took his last breath. Not once did I anticipate that my father would struggle to remember to eat, to complete daily tasks, his address, age and birthdate.
Instead of a strong and quick man, my dad is thin and feeble. He wobbles when he walks, his balance challenged by the changes in his brain. His memory is fading. He has difficulty recalling activities that happened an hour prior. The last 30 years are blurry to him.
Alzheimer’s has robbed him of his physical and mental health. But it has not taken everything from him. My dad still has his wit. Even in his most confused state, he manages to intentionally make me laugh. He still has his family: a wife, 4 children, 9 grandchildren and 1 great-granddaughter. Most importantly, he still has his heart. Every time I see him, he tells me how much he loves me, followed by “I really mean it”. He is grateful for every moment that he spends with his family, friends and past karate students.
I recently had the great pleasure of introducing my dad to his first great-grandchild. He sat for an hour, holding this precious newborn in his arms. While he held my first grandbaby, I talked about the past: my own babies and my memories of being his little girl. He did not recall my stories, but continued to listen while he snuggled with the baby. I told him that one of my favorite childhood memories was our night-time ritual. I repeated the prayer that we used to say together every night. I shared that we used to sing “Me and Bobby McGee” and he replied that he remembered the name but not the song. On a whim, I opened Spotify on my phone, scrolled through the Janis Joplin songs and hit play. The first few chords blared from my phone speaker, and in time with Janis, my father sang along. He sang to his new great grandchild quietly, but with the same eye sparkle and heart as when he sang with me. It took me to the second verse to think to get a video. Tears blurred my vision, but I managed to capture a little of my dad’s song.
Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease. I wish with all of my heart that it would leave my father’s mind, but, of course I know that will never be the case. He will continue to lose more memories and body control.
But I have promised myself that I will not dwell on what is to come. Instead I will help my father reminisce about the good times, have new experiences, and continue to love the man who is still larger than the life. I will play “Me and Bobby McGee” on repeat until my father no longer recalls the words and then I will sing it for him.