47: The Promises We Make

47: The Promises We Make

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

The Promises We Make

What a happy and holy fashion it is that those who love one another should rest on the same pillow.

~Nathaniel Hawthorne

I remember the moment my world changed. I was working a long day in the city, and my wife delighted me with the promise of my favorite dinner. Tonight, she said, we would have roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella, and basil, with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and a loaf of fresh Italian bread from the bakery.

I walked in the door that evening, anticipating our delicious meal, and to my surprise, the table only held two place settings and a loaf of bread. Nothing else. And no indication from my wife that anything was amiss. That moment confirmed what I had suspected for a while. I wanted to cry, wrap my arms around my wife, and beg her to please, please, not disappear on me. But there was no getting around it. My wife had younger-onset Alzheimer’s.

That was three years ago, when she was only fifty-one. Now at fifty-four, she continues her long, slow descent into a place where my will to bring her back has no effect.

My nickname for Linda is Radio Bean, a play on Radiant Being. I have never known another person to be so joyful, optimistic, and radiant. As time has passed, I have witnessed the struggle inside her between that joyful woman and the mysterious dark force that’s descending, smothering her personality. The image it creates for me is of my beautiful wife drowning, reaching out with her hand to me, looking intensely into my eyes for me to save her. But I can’t. Therein lies the heartbreak. But what I have discovered is that she could save me, completing the selfless promise of love she always reserved for me.

Our life these days is all about remembering. Not remembering events, but rather a coming together of the most essential, sacred aspects of ourselves in a way that gives meaning and relevance to our struggle. Our challenge with this illness is to pave a way to something of value that underscores the strength of our love for each other.

While she forgets, I learn to re-member. In a way I am remembering for both of us; for as she loses her identity, she feebly latches onto mine. She turns to me to not only take care of her worldly needs, but also to validate her state. If I am happy, she is happier. If I am peaceful, she is more internally relaxed.

So why not use this emotional tether to lead us both into a deeper state of grace? Why not take her hand, and stumble together toward the light? And stumble we do. Because as any caregiver who has gone through this knows, it is a road fraught with frustration, impatience, sadness, and resentment.

The one question that never seems to have an answer is, why? Why her? Why me? Strength then, must come in searching for grace in the absence of understanding. I might never know why. But what I do know is that none of what she does, doesn’t do, says, or doesn’t say is her fault. I also know that I made her a promise to love and cherish her in sickness and in health. And that promise doesn’t mean we simply stick it out. It underscores our assurance to continue to march into the light and rail against the unrelenting forces that seek to undermine our resolve.

On her worst days I see much less of her in her eyes. She responds to me less, disappearing more. I find myself praying that she is retreating to a place that is peaceful for her.

When she sleeps, I gently kiss her on the lips and forehead and quietly plead with her to come back to me. I wish she could hitch a ride on a passing miracle in her dreams and ride it home to me where I will be waiting with kisses and gifts and adventures.

At the same time, I lay my head down and remember that our deal with life is for all of it, not just the warm and fuzzy stuff. So I contemplate patience, and I reflect on love, and I discover that while my life may look different than anything I could have imagined years ago, I am still blessed. I am still grateful to have a wife who has been the great love of my life. Who is as beautiful in illness as she is in health, because I know her and I know that somewhere in there, she remains.

Alzheimer’s is a dreadful disease. It takes away what is so precious. It derails lives and steals dreams. But it is also an opportunity to discover the truest meaning of love, of patience, and ultimately to find our best selves. I know how easy it was to recite vows on our wedding day. I now know how difficult it is to see those vows put to the test. But now at least I know what a vow means. Now at least I know what a life means. And now, at least, I know what love means.

Three years into it, my Radio Bean is still with me. We are still us. There is certainly enough awareness that we can still share so much, and we do — long drives in the country, movies, dinner with great, compassionate friends. We love to go hiking. We walk down the street holding hands. But now, we are holding much more than hands. We are holding on to each other and the promise we made.

Alzheimer’s takes away so much. And in some strange way, it gives as well — as long as we stay open to grace and are willing to appreciate that there are some answers we might never have.

~Dr. David Davis

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