When Hope Morphs into Reality

The thief first appeared as a slight blip on the memory screen. A word forgotten, a key chain misplaced. We laughed — at first.

Then more and more items were misplaced. Numerous words forgotten until finally our parents’ identities disappeared.

We no longer laughed. Instead, we sought out doctors and resources. Someone who could tell us why Mom acted so strangely, why Dad could no longer drive.

Then the dreaded diagnosis: dementia for Dad, Alzheimer’s for Mom. The Long Good-bye.

The memory thief smirked. He had completed his work and left us bereft.

Sometimes our precious ones forget. Eventually, they no longer remember those they have birthed and raised.

Dad was a gentle man, a Mennonite farmer who lifted hay bales all day and threw them into a truck, then spent the evening softly strumming his guitar.

Henry, often called Hank, was soft-spoken and so introverted that when he prayed or gave advice — everyone listened.

How I wish I would have written down more of his wisdom before he became forever silent.

He was a man of faith, with a history of athleticism. A triathlete who was scouted by the Yankees and became a basketball legend at Phillips University in his hometown: Enid, Oklahoma.

Yet not even his faith nor years of exercise and outdoor living could save him from the memory thief.

Like a good farmer, he took care of the land and his home. One November day, a fire threatened to destroy the farmhouse.

He beat out the flames until he was sure everything was safe, then stumbled outside to gulp fresh air.

That’s where Mom found him, with his shirt hanging off his chest. Deadly burns all over his body.

After four months in the hospital, several surgeries, daily debreeding sessions, graftings, sleepless nights, scars that roiled our stomachs, the acrid stench of putrified flesh — Dad was finally released.

He returned home, unable to remember how the tractor made ruts in the plowed field or how to create chords on his guitar. Why the cows didn’t come home without the gentle farmer calling them in.

“Trauma-induced dementia,” said the doctor.

Mom, the nurse, retired from her job. They moved from the farm to town, into a house that could accommodate a wheelchair, if needed.

“I’ll never put him in a nursing home,” Mom said. She became his caregiver, daily, monthly, for ten long years.

My sister moved home to help. Together they fed him, bathed him, rolled him over when he graduated to the hospital bed.

The silencing of his wise advice cut deeply into our lives, and my heart ached when I visited.

We connected through music, so I sang to him. A spark would kindle in his eyes, especially for his favorite hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”

Then one April, when the spring tulips erupted into bright yellow and purple blooms, as the promise of life budded everywhere — the spark disappeared.

I knew it would not be long.

In May, he graduated to heaven. A release for all of us, especially for Dad.

Sometimes death is a relief.

With her mate of 54 years buried, Mom devoted herself to volunteer work. She served meals to the hungry and counted Bingo cards at the nursing home.

One Thanksgiving, she said, “I’m so glad I’m not in a nursing home — yet.”

I wondered later if she had a premonition.

She began to misplace the pots and pans. She safety-pinned her house keys to the waistband of her pants, just in case she forgot how to get back into the house. She parked her car in the same spot at the grocery store so she could find it when she came out.

She coped so well, it took us a while to figure out something was drastically wrong.

Then fainting spells, hard falls, congestive heart failure and a pacemaker. The doctor said, “She cannot live independently anymore. Alzheimer’s and a benign brain tumor.”

We had already contracted with a beautiful assisted living facility. But she fought us. “Why are you putting me here? There’s nothing wrong with me.”

We lied and hated it. “It’s only for a little while, Mom. Rehab after your pacemaker surgery. The doctor ordered it.”

A partial truth is still a lie.

She lived in assisted living for eight years, then graduated to the Alzheimer’s wing. Confusion deepened. No more fun trips to the mall with her best friend. No more biscuits and gravy at Braum’s. No more crocheted projects.

She sits quietly in her chair, often in the dark, pretending to read. No longer comprehending the words.

Sometimes they forget and sometimes life forces them to forget.

No matter what the situation or the health issue, caregivers are left to figure out a new normal — to search for hope and continue to love while dealing with this brutal disease.

We can find hope in the Long Goodbye. We learn patience and strive for joy. We treasure each moment we can still hold a hand, sing a hymn or stroke a forehead.

Sometimes they forget, but as long as we remember — their legacies continue.

©2021 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

The above excerpt is from Sometimes They Forget, available on Amazon and Kindle.

The Power of the Music

As the trauma-induced dementia stole my father away, one joy remained – the memories of music. He lost his ability to speak and to sing. He no longer strummed the old Martin guitar or plunked chords on the piano. But the memory of the music remained.

I know this because I saw it in his eyes. Although Dad gradually lost the ability to respond by voice or even touch, the lyrics and the sounds of music cached in his memory. Eighth notes and rests, fermatas and repeat signs retained their sacred hold on Dad’s soul. Although he loved many types of music – country western, classical and the harmonies of chorales – it was the hymns that evoked life to the very end.

“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. Oh what a foretaste of glory divine. Heir of salvation, purchase of God. Born of his spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long.”

Whenever I visited Dad and entered his bedroom at the end of the hallway, I started singing this old hymn – Dad’s favorite. Since the day he gave his heart to Jesus, during halftime of a college basketball game, the blessed assurance of his salvation wrapped his heart in security. Dad chose this hymn during sing-alongs. He and I sang it together when we ministered together at nursing homes. He carried that blessed assurance with him even during the tragic fire that started the long road toward dementia. His soul wrapped itself around the meaning of those words and blessed him during the darkest times.

I stroked Dad’s hair and patted his hand as I continued to sing through all the verses of his hymn. Each time I sang to Dad, a spark lit up his eyes. Somewhere inside that ravaged brain, the music stirred a memory. Although he could not verbally share it with me, his eyes spoke the truth. The blessed assurance of his eternal security in Christ still existed. His soul echoed the joy of those words.

During Easter weekend of 2008, I once again entered Dad’s bedroom and sang his hymn. I patted his hand and looked into his eyes for the familiar spark of remembrance. But this time, it was gone. Only a blank stare greeted me. The dementia had finally stolen from him the last vestige of memory. I knew Dad was on his way to heaven where the music would never end.

One month later, my sister called me and said. “Dad’s finally Home. It’s over.”

At his funeral, we sang the words once again. The music reverberated throughout the sanctuary, surrounded the dear body lying in the coffin and echoed through the hallways of the church. As Dad’s earthly story ended, that blessed assurance became his epilogue. His song carried him into the arms of Jesus and once again, I marveled at the power of the music.

As caregivers, we must find out the special songs that comfort our loved ones. As we sing those melodies or play an instrument at the bedside, we connect once again. And in that connection, we find joy even in the waning moments of life. The power of the music transcends our one-dimensional lives and transports us to those spiritual havens we long for.

Happy Easter, Dad. I love you, and I miss you. In your memory, I will sing your song.