Are You Who I Think You Are? - a Son's Story about the Power of Love and Alzheimer's Disease

"Are you who I think you are?" - is the question my mother asked my father several years ago. When I heard the question, it caused me to ask myself, "Am I who I think I am?" 
When life presents enormous challenges for those you love, I've learned that the solution will be apparent if you value relationships and acknowledge the power of love.
Let me tell you my family's story. 
Mom and Dad met while Dad was a young Air Force Lieutenant earning his wings.  They had a small military wedding more than 60 years ago.
Nine months later, when their first son was born, Dad was overseas in Africa.  They had five boys in their first nine years of marriage and moved seven times.



Dad's first love is flying. He started when he was fourteen and continued to fly for almost seventy years.  He flew tankers in the Air Force, retired from Eastern Airlines with a flawless flight record and became a Flight Instructor to share his knowledge with those eager to learn the art.

In 2006, he was awarded the FAA's prestigious "Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award" for his aviation skill and expertise.FAA photo

Dad's whole life centered on meeting objectives and following the airline's or Mom's directives... whether it was on-time arrival with the airline or getting us all to church.  

Mom enjoyed life. She taught us love and the value of relationships.  She was a homemaker and great mother to her five boys, attending to our needs: baseball, tennis, scouts, homework-enforcement while Dad was away on his trips with the airline.

 Family Image

 

Mom was the Planner! Whether it was building a house, planning a reunion or going on a vacation; she organized the details of any event. 

Mom was incredibly smart.  She loved to read, and taught us all the pleasure of reading. She attended college after raising five boys and made the Dean's List.

 

Photo of Mom

As good as it was, Mom resented Dad's passion for flying and the attention he received.  She felt she could never compete with Dad's career.  She found herself both publicly and privately in the shadow of "the airline captain", with her own accomplishments going unrecognized and unacknowledged. 

Their life became a series of transactions rather than a relationship.  Mom asked and Dad gave.  His loving response was to give her whatever she wanted.

The disappointments and resentment in her life and in her marriage were etched in her mind and voiced repeatedly over the years to anyone that would pause to listen to her story.  My brothers and I pursued our lives away from the epicenter of the emotions that consumed our parents and eventually unraveled their relationship and their marriage. 

She asked him to divorce her and as always, he followed her directions.  I suppose he did it out of love.

 

  Divorce

They divorced in 1986, occasionally seeing one another at family gatherings, graduations or weddings.

Mom was happy to live her life in the mountains of North Carolina.  Her home was always a warm, comfortable place.

Dad continued his love of flying by sharing his knowledge and experience as a flight instructor.

They never remarried and always seemed interested in each other, at least from a distance.

In 2009, it became apparent that Mom was not functioning at her usual level of excellence.  She was forgetful and unaware.  It has been said that "Aging is NOT for sissies."  It shouldn't be done alone.  Everyone needs an advocate to facilitate and guide them.

So we assembled a medical team of specialists: Geriatric, Neurological, Psychiatric. Mom gracefully submitted to the battery of physical and psychological exams, neurological tests and cognitive evaluations.

"Draw the face of a clock."

"Count backwards from 100 by sevens."

"Remember the words:  BALL, WATCH, PEN, TREE, FLAG.  I'll ask you to repeat them in a few minutes."

Finally she was diagnosed with that ubiquitous disease of our day, Alzheimer's Disease. IT'S A THIEF.

Its victims are robbed of their precious memories and the knowledge of who they are, robbed of knowing who those closest to them are and robbed of the ability to perform and function independently.

We have seen Mom through her good times and supported her through episodes of uncertainty, darkness and loss.  Medicines help but they're not a cure; memory lapses, mood swings, paranoia and psychosis persist.  Each day she struggles to reclaim herself.  She may pause to recall who she is, who we are, and how to go about doing some basic things. One day it was going down the stairs, Mom seemed to have forgotten how, so I taught her.  She smiled and was grateful.

Any kind of illness is expensive.  Mom failed the test for federal aid because she made too much, and she made too little to afford a quality assisted living facility.  

My wife Jean and I were in a position to invite her to live with us, but there was the concern of how to care for her as we continued to work.  I remembered the time when Dad came to live with Jean and me to help care for our son David during an extended illness.   He was the grandpa and father I'd hoped he'd be.

When I thought of Mom and her needs I thought "Dad, are you who I think you are?"

Although Dad had made a life for himself flight instructing in the Atlanta area, I turned to him for his help to nurture Mom and to become her primary caregiver.  I thought I knew what his answer would be.  Dad stepped forward eagerly, though he had his doubts that she would accept him.

Our plan was not met with any degree of optimism by Mom's doctors, our friends, my in-laws or the Alzheimer's Association, but we felt it was worth a try.  It felt right to us.

My brothers and their families supported the plan so we moved forward.

We rented a home in Raleigh, North Carolina and created an environment that would allow them to succeed.  It was a space large enough to give everyone their privacy and accommodate visits from my brothers and their families, and small enough to be watchful and alert for Mom and Dad's needs.  

When they met again on moving-day, Mom looked at Dad with a sparkle in her eyes and a school girl's smile. She asked "Are you who I think you are?"  Dad responded "I think so." 

It was love RE-IGNITED.  She became his new "airport".  Feeding her, caring for her and loving her consumed Dad.  He rarely left her side.  It wasn't long before talk of re-marriage was taking place and long cast-off wedding bands were being worn again.  I looked at Dad and realized -  he was exactly who I thought he was.  

Six months later, Dad took the hand of his bride once again, for better or for worse.  It was a small, intimate wedding ceremony held in our home and blessed by our pastor, Jonathan Bow.   

 

 

Mom enjoyed the attention and the ceremony and the cake and the flowers and tossing her bouquet and the ride around the block in the backseat of a chauffeured car - complete with trailing tin cans.  Dad was uncomfortable with the kindness and commotion, but he loved the sparkle in Mom's eyes;  and I asked myself "Are they the people I thought they were?"

 

We will never really know if this was a matter of forgiveness or forgetfulness.  I choose to believe it was forgiveness.  Either way, they're happy-in-love honeymooners and a testimony to the power of Love.

They've begun a new life in Ormond Beach, Florida  where the weather is warmer and the sun seems brighter, on the third floor of a nice condo with a beach view and my brother Bruce providing the watchful eye.  

Mom no longer remembers the bad stuff.  She's blissful. It seems the love she's always had for him is no longer shadowed by "keeping score".  And Dad, he is exceptionally happy! 

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Remarkably, our splintered family has been made whole again - fully engaged with one another, completely in awe of the power of love that has swept through our lives and so grateful that in our family - Alzheimer's brought with it a "silver lining".

As for me,  I'm just beginning to understand that our life here is fleeting and there are a few key lessons.  In our time here on earth, it's all about relationships, forgiving others and forgiving ourselves, loving God and loving others, through the good times and the bad; and always asking and evaluating "Am I who I think I am?"

- written in 2014 by Neil Schnaak, son of Mary and Ernie Schnaak

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