“As a white candle/In a holy place,/So is the beauty/Of an aged face.”
— Joseph Campbell
There has been a sad story in our newspaper this week. It is a love story with an ending that nobody wanted to see happen. It is the story of a man — a successful man, a dignified man — and his love for a woman who stole his heart more than sixty years ago. It is the story of the unrelenting challenge, the unrelenting torture of a disease called Alzheimer’s. It is the story of an ending where the dignified successful man turned caregiver ended the compromised life of the woman who stole his heart and then took his own. My heart breaks for the man, his love, and his family. My mind tells me that what he did was terribly wrong; but I have trouble judging his decision because it hits so close to home. When I hear his story, and the story of the love of his life, I want to light a white candle and recognize the beauty of an aged face.
It has been more than seven years since my mother began to show symptoms of dementia. She spent a year in an Alzheimer’s unit until my father, who could not bear to see the love of his life in such a place — away from him — insisted that she return home to his care. When Mom first came home to stay with Dad again, it seemed terribly difficult. We could not have known that those early days were the easy part. Seven years later, there are days when it seems unbearable.
I remember when Mom was in the Alzheimer’s unit. Dad told me that he had prayed for her return and that he had told God, “I would be happy if all she could do was sit in a corner where I could look at her and see that she is all right.” Be careful what you wish for. The dream of simply gazing on that white candle, his sweetheart’s aged face, did not begin to approximate the reality that now is my father’s life. I say it is my father’s life, because Mom is blissfully isolated and free from anyone’s expectations.
The woman who taught her children impeccable table manners now is prone to eating with her knife if the whim suits her. She can be demanding, even with the limited speech that now serves her poorly when she tries to communicate her needs. She needs help with the simplest tasks — putting toothpaste on the brush, remembering how to stay clean and healthy, even what order to put on her clothes. There are more times when she doesn’t quite make it to the bathroom than times when she does. She needs to be reminded to eat. Some nights, when Mom is restless, Dad gets by on only two or three hours of sleep; and when morning comes, it all starts again.
My Dad and I talk every day, and I do my best to listen long-distance to the lather, rinse, repeat sort of stories that make up his life. Some days are good. ”Your mother ate all of her breakfast today and did a good job at dinner, too.” Others are not so good, and Dad takes it to heart. He feels responsible for assuring that Mom does what she needs to do. ”Today was a JOTB day,” Dad told me one evening last week. ”JOTB?” ”Jump Off The Bridge, ” he explained. I told him I understood, but I hoped he would hold onto the railing. ”I don’t want to have to come with my spatula and pick you up.” Dark humor sometimes is our best friend, and he actually laughed when I said that. But dark humor is not really funny.
My heart aches for the compromised life that has been dealt to my mother. My heart breaks for my ninety-year-old father whose love for my mom makes him feel like he’s serving a life sentence in Hell. I am painfully aware that Mom, who has not a care in the world, may outlive Dad, whose health is failing under the pressure of caregiving. But he will not have it any other way. He has chosen to care for Mom, and as hard as it is to see him struggle, I respect him for not giving up on Mom. I know he’s terrified that he will die first and leave her. I can understand completely how the man in the newspaper article might have made the terrible choice to end two lives.
I will light a white candle today in honor of the dignity of old age. I will light a white candle today in honor of the sort of commitment to loving that continues when Alzheimer’s changes all the rules. I will light a white candle today in honor of the beauty that a family has lost as their parents’ voices are silenced forever; and then I will call my Dad and say hello, just to hear the sound of his voice. Some day soon, I will miss it terribly.