It’s easy to get jaded — too easy, in fact — when faced with the proliferation of the days, weeks, months, even years dedicated to the treatment (in some cases, the eradication) of each and every affliction known to man.
There are so many of these special times of focus, so many pleas for public awareness of this and that disease, that the public can become desensitized, can dismiss or ignore even the sincerest of campaigns. “Not another one,” is the often cry of protest upon seeing the latest promotion of that month’s malady.
Except, of course, when the disease that’s earned its day or month in the sun has had an impact on one’s life; then, the cynicism and a myopic view is replaced by empathy.
In my case, for instance, I didn’t react with disinterest when I happened to hear or read (or both) the other day that January was Alzheimer’s Awareness Month in Canada (and perhaps that’s often the goal of the people who orchestrate these attention-gathering proclamations: to force couch-potatoes out of their selfish comfort zones, a location where I can usually be found). Because immediately, I was prompted to reflect on the sad reality that my father suffered from Alzheimer’s for the last few years of his mostly abundant and fun-filled existence.
An anecdote here seems appropriate.
It was a lovely evening in July three years ago and Dad and I were sitting side by side on the deck, just the two of us, with the perpetually phenomenal view of Flatrock Harbour and the vast ocean horizon placating the fact that there was no conversation taking place, that no conversation could take place.
I had, in fact, grown somewhat accustomed to the notion that the easy-going, natural and rarely dull banter that Dad and I had enjoyed for just about our entire lives was no more, that Alzheimer’s had robbed the old man of his amazing talents as a raconteur. Our family took solace in the fact that Dad never lost track of any of us, that he knew all of his loved ones by name, and that he was usually aware, for the most part, of where he was. But that was the extent of it. Normal conversation hardly ever took place.
But on that summer night, I suddenly noticed that Dad was alertly looking in my direction, and that his eyes seemed particularly alive, exhibiting a sparkle that I hadn’t seen in a while.
And for the next minute or so, Alzheimer’s disappeared, and Dad spoke with amazing clarity; he had something of substance to say, and he said it. The exact words I believe I’ll keep to myself, but suffice to say it was classic Dad, a Gerry Wakeham discourse during which he used the magnificent view and the setting we were enjoying as a tangible illustration of how far he felt my life had evolved, that I could sit back, healthy and happy and comfortable.
I was caught off guard, to be quite honest, but listened attentively, and managed to voice my appreciation.
Dad smiled, but as quick as that, I could see the light dissipating. For a satisfying and pleasant, albeit brief time, though, he had returned. We were two longtime buddies perched on a deck, having a yarn, the way it used to be.
I can’t speak for my mother and my siblings as to how they reacted to Dad’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, but I found myself initially frustrated. There were even occasions when I became angry with Dad, almost demanding that the old Gerry resurrect himself, until I realized that this wasn’t Dad’s fault. He had a disease. And it was I who had to make the adjustment. I had to continue to love and appreciate the new Dad, the Alzheimer’s Dad. And embrace those very rare moments, like that evening in Flatrock, when the dementia seemed to disappear.
It happened a few months before that, as well, when the two of us were relaxing on the patio of the apartment he and Mom had rented after selling their home in New Jersey, around the time the family was preparing to help the two of them move back to Newfoundland.
And it was a momentary reminder of the type of humorous repartee that had always been part of our relationship, of our bond.
Again, there had been no chit-chat. But we both could see that a lively party was taking place on the back lawn of an adjacent apartment building — men and women in their 30s consuming endless drinks and having just a grand old time.
Making small talk, but assuming Dad wasn’t paying much, if any attention, I happened to observe: “Ya know, Dad, 30 years ago I would have been over at that party, trying to get drunk and trying to get laid.”
“Yeah,” Dad said, getting my attention with just that one word. “And, guess what? You would have been successful at only one of those goals.”
I burst out laughing, of course, and called him a “saucy fart,” or something along those lines.
His reciprocal laugh was a delight to behold. He knew he had gotten off a good line.
I was probably fortunate that I had those moments with Dad, and that his mental awareness didn’t disappear altogether, that I didn’t have to watch him deteriorate to a point that would have been devastating to handle, the scenario that so many relatives of Alzheimer’s victims are forced to endure.
But Alzheimer’s Awareness Month has reminded me: I am in their corner.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.