Every month seems to have a designation for a cause: Black History in February; Autism in April; Pride Month in June; Breast Cancer Awareness in October. Here in the United States, November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. For 2020, I am more aware of this observance than ever.
My wife’s father, George H. Cooper – her hero, first love, and unfailing strength of her life – passed away peacefully a few days ago after a decade-long struggle with Alzheimer’s and dementia. The “Disease of Forgetfulness,” as it was called by German doctor Alois Alzheimer, is not a normal part of aging. It is a ferocious, debilitating disease.
It plunders one’s memories. It turns routine tasks into unsolvable puzzles. Words, household items, and names become misplaced. Personality changes are common, depression more so. And the impacts extend far beyond the six million individuals living with Alzheimer’s in our country.
Their families face the Herculean trial of twenty-four-hour caregiving; of making almost impossible decisions; and daily – while drinking a cocktail of anger, guilt, sadness, acceptance, compassion, and a dozen more emotions – grieving the erosion of the person they love. Erosion, yes, but not obliteration.
I will forever treasure a moment of pristine clarity George had in his last days. For a few precious seconds he recovered his booming voice, a twinkle in his dark eyes, and as my wife spoon-fed him his favorite lemon pudding he said to her: “I love you kid, no doubt about it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
When George was first diagnosed I wrote about it in this space. I said, “His family will journey with him, at times smiling as he forgets a name or suddenly behaves as a child; at other times weeping because his memories have been stolen from him; and sometimes buckling beneath the unbearable weight of caring for the one who was once capable of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“But what other choice do they have? When one has freely given his life for those he loves, how can they not give a little life in return? This family’s hero might forget everything: His accomplishments, the life he once lived, and maybe their names. But love will not let them forget him, especially when he needs them most.”
I repeat these words, almost ten years later, because my wife’s family did exactly as I thought they would. They journeyed on, laughing and weeping as they went, and while there were times of great flailing, soul-searching, and questioning, their love never failed – because George’s love didn’t either.
Alzheimer’s is the only leading cause of premature death in this country without a cure. Until science can find a remedy, we can all offer some much needed relief. Take a meal to a caregiver. Offer to run errands. Check in with a call or a text. Persist in your support. Love those who love – unceasingly. It’s what they need, and there’s no doubt about it.