This morning I got the message, one of many I have been dreading. The police brought my dad home last night. He left the house at 2 a.m. and wandered the neighbourhood, knocking on doors. He didn’t know where he was or how to get home. Another milestone reached along the terrible path of Alzheimer’s disease. I can’t imagine the worry, and, as a typical caregiver would have, unfounded guilt that my mom must be feeling. Not a great way to start Thanksgiving Day.
As a day set aside to count our blessings, it can also serve to highlight our losses. As families gather and marvel at how the children have grown, we also notice how many of us have aged. Thanksgiving and Christmas were typically large affairs when I was a child, full of extended family. As my great-aunts fussed over how tall I was getting, I noticed how they were beginning to shrink. As we recounted shared memories over much food, I saw how the memories of my elders were fading. Once my Great-Grandad introduced himself to the woman sitting beside him at the table, unable to recognize that it was his daughter. A gentleman to the end. He was a wanderer too – he would somehow get past the nurses at the home, and they would later find him on the streets. Once he returned with two black eyes. When asked I’m sure he was convinced he had been “home” to Saskatchewan – he had left there some fifty years previous to live in B.C.
At least he had the happy form of dementia. I don’t know where my dad goes in his mind, but I am grateful he no longer remembers his own dad’s final years. His dementia was dark – he was selfish, moody, paranoid. I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of people lashing out in confusion and rage at those who love them the most. And the slipping away of a loved one can happen in so many different ways. My parents tried to shelter me from the illnesses of my older relatives when I was young, but I knew. Great-Uncle Elliot always greeted his three nieces with, “Hi boys!”, and we threw our hands on our hips and protested, “We’re not boys, we’re girls!!” The year he simply said “Hi girls” we knew something was wrong. He died not long after. Great-Uncle Bill, another practical joker, left us in a similar way.
These were the relatives we only saw once or twice a year, and the changes are so much more pronounced that way. Unfortunately that’s how it is with my dad and me now. Living in different provinces, when I do see him the changes are so drastic. Gone is the grandpa who played ball and read books with his grandsons, helped in the garden, and talked politics and sports. I don’t know if my kids remember him that way or not. I must admit I have a harder and harder time seeing him as the hero of my childhood – the man who always put the worm on my hook, and taught me about birds and airplanes. The man who would defend my honour against any unsavoury seeming boy, secure my bedroom against any monster, and could open even the tightest of pickle jars. There is a broken shell where that man used to be.
I want to throw my hands up in the air and say what on earth is the point of all this pain and suffering? What hope is there is a world where most of us end up dying in pain, and watching our loved ones do the same? Jesus Christ is the hope. He is the only hope for this broken world. He is the only way I can make sense of any of it. I pray for the peace of Christ to work in my dad’s heart and mind. But that part of his mind is long shut. Even before this disease started to overtake his brain, my dad was closed off to the idea of a loving God – he had been hurt by the church, and unfortunately didn’t know that the church sometimes has nothing to do with Jesus. But still I pray, that somewhere in all the deep confusion of dying synapses, God will heal those memories and Dad will find the love of Jesus.
So as I gather with my husband and boys this Thanksgiving, it is with mixed feelings that I remember all the family and friends I have shared this day with throughout the years – those celebrating in other places, and those gone on, as my Papa would say, to the “Happy Hunting Grounds.” And I pray that as you give thanks today, in the middle of your own pain and loss, you find the hope of the love of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.