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More To Hold On To

Older, young handsIn Wednesday’s Author Note I wrote about the start of Alzheimer Awareness Month, and the theme “There’s So Much To Hold On To”. I wasn’t thinking I would write another Alzheimer’s-related post so soon, but perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking about some of the things that I hold onto still.

In Standing Tall: A Daughter’s Gift, I talk quite openly about the sense of unrelenting pain and frustration that emanated from my father in the later stages of his battle. I talk about how he was, most of the time, trapped in a mind that denied his very essence and a body that was wasting away. I talked about his anger and his unresponsiveness.

But still, there were moments to hold on to, like the night when after many hours of pacing, my father and I sat on the couch in the living room. By this point he no longer knew me, had not in quite some time, and as the day grew dark, he needed to be in constant motion, pacing from bedroom to living room to dining room and back. Because he was so frail he had to stop frequently for brief rests. And as I explained in A Daughter’s Gift, I would pace and sit with him…

Sometimes, when he sat on the side of the bed, clumsily trying to rub one of his hands with the other, he’d let me take his hands in mine and rub them gently. Are they cold? I’d ask. Cold, he’d whisper. Do they hurt? I’d ask. Hurt, he’d answer. And so we’d sit, side by side, and I’d massage his fingers and the palm of his hands as best I could. He would smile a little and I would say a silent thank you with my prayer.

One night we had taken a break from our pacing to sit on the couch. Pat (my mother’s friend) was visiting and sat in my father’s chair. My mother sat across from her. And I sat beside my father facing them both. I started to rub my hands –– it was fall and they were cold. Or maybe it was that I felt cold all over. My father, silent until then, looked down at my hands then across at me. I smiled a small smile. Cold? He asked. Yes, I answered. Cold. He smiled back at me then –– a quiet, warm smile –– and took my hands in his and started to rub them just as I’d rubbed his so many times before. Thank you, I said. Thank you so very much. And I looked across at my mother, my eyes directing her glance downwards. He’s rubbing my hands just as I rub his. He’s rubbing my hands. I lowered my head a little so he would not see my tears.

We sat there for a long time that evening… At one point, after he’d stopped rubbing my hands but was still holding them, he lifted one up and looked directly at my mother. Look what I have, he said with a huge smile. Look what I have. And then he started to rub my hands once more. He knew me again, in that instant. It was so brief it was poignant, bittersweet, and a particularly precious gift all in one. I treasured it, and the gentleness with which he rubbed my hands to make them warm.

I don’t understand how it’s possible, but I know I’m not the only Alzheimer’s loved one to have experienced moments of recognition we thought were lost to us forever. It happened on my mother’s birthday; it happened on the night he told her for the last time that he loved her; it has happened for readers who’ve taken the time to share their stories with me.

I hold on to all that was still possible in the early days. I hold on to all that was still possible in the middle days. And I hold on to the memory of our hands.