I Never Got to Say Goodbye: An Essay on Losing a Father to Alzheimer's

As I put the hot oil treatment on my head, the smell envelopes me. I am transported back to my parents' bedroom and the bottle of Aramis cologne that sat by my father's sink. It is the same smell. I go and buy a bottle of Aramis I put a dab on my father's red flannel shirt that I have kept all these years. I breathe in deeply, and I cry.

My father is dying. He is in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease. During his last stay in the hospital, my older sister and I went to see him. We took turns in bouts of crying. Different things set us off. For her, it was the shock of seeing him looking so old and frail. It wasn't our father; it was an old man. The bruises on his hand were shades of red and purple and looked painful. His skin was paper thin, scaly like a reptile. He was unkempt; I think this is what bothered my sister the most. His normally short-clipped hair and groomed eyebrows were wild and frightening. His breath smelled horrendous - something our father never would have allowed. It was difficult to reconcile this man with the image we both had of our father.

When we arrived, he was clutching the hands of a nurse who had just moved him to a bedside chair. He would not let go. I offered him my own hands and he reluctantly relinquished the nurse's, grasping tightly to mine. I sat, awkward, hunched over, glad to be of some comfort to him. As my sister began to cry, I gave him her hands and retrieved a book of poetry I had brought. I read from Robert Frost and he visibly relaxed, sitting back in his chair. He tried to talk. It was as if he had marbles in his mouth. I thought he was trying to recite one of his favorites, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. But maybe that's just wishful thinking.

We eventually settled into our old way of talking, my sister and I. We bantered back and forth, reciting poems that he forced us to memorize as children, with him trying to pipe in. We were provoking some response from him but I couldn't tell whether it was in real time or simply vestiges of his former self, firings in his brain. When he tried to speak, signs of frustration would pass over his face. That's what killed me. The furrowed brow, the strain to put together words and make his mouth work properly. It was so hard to watch him struggle to speak.

We stayed for hours, bouts of conversation followed by long silences. But the silence was strangely comforting. He seemed relaxed and peaceful for a time; just our presence there seemed to be enough. His wife bustled in after her dinner date with friends, the atmosphere significantly altered. It was time of us to go.

And so I remember our visit now. I never know when it will come back to me. A smell. A phrase overheard from some other man from his generation. A song. A poem. A book. College football season. I am already mourning him and he is still alive. But he is just a shell of his former self. That is what Alzheimer's does. I don't consider this a long goodbye: I never got to say goodbye.

Source: Kate Williams


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