Deep inside I ache. But I’m intrigued.
I reach up to tear off a little strip of the paper to register and swipe at suddenly damp cheeks.
I know Alzheimer’s. Oh yeah, I know you.
It started in our family years and years ago and it ended on a Christmas day three years ago–not so merry and not so bright.
Pretty much every memory I have of my grandmother is colored by this disease, I don’t really remember her without it—it was a twenty year journey.
But my dad is another story. It felt like twenty minutes. Alzheimer’s hit hard and it hit fast.
Now I love Christmas. Who doesn’t?
I can still picture myself as a kid peering up at the sky on Christmas Eve as waves crashed on the beach nearby, searching desperately for Santa’s sleigh—hoping that jolly and rosy cheeked man could find his way to Surf City despite our serious lack of winter and fake plastic reindeers on the lawns. My dad would laugh at my earnestness and point to an airplane or something bright in the sky to get me to look.
I think of my own babies bundled up in their Christmas jammies putting out almond milk and cookies (is Santa dairy free too mama?) and laughing uproariously at the Hazel the Elf’s affinity for joy rides in the Barbie Corvette leaving a trail of Starburst wrappers in her dust.
Christmas, to me, is a blissful hodge-podge of cherished memories I treasure to no end. But I also remember the Christmas morning three years ago when I answered the call that changed everything.
My dad—suffering from Picks Disease (an aggressive form of Alzheimer’s) had lapsed into a state of paranoia, grabbed a butcher knife and forced my step-mom and brother into a corner believing they were intruders. I was expecting to hear “Merry Christmas Sweetheart. We are running a little behind for Christmas dinner because we ran into traffic on the Ortega Pass”
Instead screams and terror filled the air. My step-mom threw the phone at my dad and he answered in a voice I didn’t know—a crazed shadow of the well-respected doctor and community leader I grew up with.
Somehow I talked him into believing I had called the police department and the real intruders were getting away. Only Jesus knows the spiritual battle and the tears streaming down my face as I talked my dad out of attacking his wife and son. But mercy interrupted. He redirected his focus and they got the knife away.
I begged my step-mom to call the police for her own safety but she wasn’t about to let my dad be taken away to some awful place for the mentally ill and locked up on Christmas Day. Needless to say they canceled out on Christmas dinner, got him to take his meds and eventually he calmed down into the sweet and docile man we knew and loved.
But the next day the story didn’t have a happy ending. Only six weeks out from the Picks diagnosis, my dad’s brain began to atrophy at an alarming rate, sending him back into a state of paranoia. He locked the bedroom door screaming about robbers and thieves chasing him and proceeded to jump off the second story balcony.
Yes, that’s right he jumped. It’s not something we talk about much because it was so traumatic. My beautiful mother was also losing her battle to pancreatic cancer at the time. Those days are a blur of shock and sorrow.
People often ask me if my dad tried to commit suicide because of his condition, but no, his mind simply tricked him. Paranoia is powerful and as his brain shut down, the delusions were very real to him.
My husband and I were at Burlington Coat Factory returning a Christmas gift when we got the call that he had jumped and hit the concrete patio. We dropped our bags and raced to the hospital where his mangled leg and body lay stretched on a gurney. I squeezed his hand and tried to calm down his disorientation and confusion. It was the last day I would ever talk coherently to my dad, as they wheeled him into a surgery he never really came back from. He looked in my eyes and said “I love You, Sam.”
A few weeks later he died from his massive injuries. I can’t imagine the hell my poor step-mom went through that day—but I’m guessing Christmas strikes a chord with her too.
But I believe this sadness is not meant to be wasted. There is always something we can do, a light we can shine to help someone else through the darkness or a word of encouragement.
Alzheimer’s is a fatal disease. There are no “survivors.”
But there are a few gifts—you just have to look hard to find them—namely the people who step up and care for their spouse and parents and loved ones. I have a million stories of my grandmother battling this disease and all her crazy antics, from running away and beating us with her purse to her own threats against caretakers, and yet I also watched my parents patiently care for her.
Last week I watched my friend’s mom carefully spoon feed her own ailing mother in a wheelchair at her granddaughter’s birthday party. Her gentleness was a sacred offering and beautiful to behold amidst a background of shrieking kids and a world focused on themselves.
I watched my darling step-father and uncles care for their dad who suffered from dementia. He died after getting severely burned in the shower because he got confused over the hot and cold faucet.
Oh this disease is merciless.
But these caretakers are the real and quiet hero’s, giving up so much to put someone else’s needs before their own. I am in awe of their decision to radically love and self-sacrifice on a daily basis.
Alzheimer’s ravages families.
Currently, there is NO known treatment or cure for Picks, the type of Alzheimer’s my dad had. Once it’s diagnosed you are lucky to get five years ultimately ending up with 24-hour care as your brain starts shutting down communication and basic functions.
I don’t know if this disease is a part of my future or not but, regardless, it is a part of my story.
In a few weeks I will walk on the same beach I used to look up into the night sky on Christmas Eve and search desperately for Santa’s sleigh. But this time I will look up at the blue sky and think of my heavenly family. I will walk for my dad, my grandmother, my step-grandfather and for life.
Please help me in changing the story for so many other families who will travel down this terrible road.
In the next few weeks the Orange County Walk4Alz is taking place. 100% of the money raised goes into research and support for families battling this disease. The walk is free but you are encouraged to donate. If you raise $50, you get a free t-shirt. That’s pretty cool!
Come join me…
To Register click here.
When, where and what time are the walks in Orange County?
Huntington Beach Walk – Saturday, November 5th – Contact Us • Registration at 7:30 AM. • Opening Ceremony at 8:30 AM. • Walk begins at 9:00 AM (rain or shine!). • Plan to arrive early to register, park and enjoy vendor village! • Parking: Complimentary transportation from First Christian Church of Huntington Beach (1207 Main St., Huntington Beach, CA 92648) to the Walk location will be provided. • Additional Parking: State Beach parking lot between 1st St. and Beach Blvd., is $15. Metered parking is available along PCH & Beach Blvd. Angel Stadium Anaheim Walk – Saturday, November 12th – Contact Us • Registration at 7:30 AM. • Opening Ceremony at 8:30 AM. • Walk begins at 9:00 AM (rain or shine!). • Plan to arrive early to register, park and enjoy vendor village! • Parking: Please enter the Stadium off of Gene Autry Way. Attendants will guide you to complimentary parking upon entry to parking lot. What are the distances of the walks?