Essay: Dementia and Grace
October 22, 2010
by Lee Seham
The adjacent family library was teeming with dishdasha-clad Saudi warriors menacingly fingering drawn scimitars. Understandably, my father felt a degree of apprehension. I quietly assured him that it was just the curtains.
Seconds later he turned to a large stuffed toy dog, propped up in the chair next to him, and, in a sharp, disapproving tone, asked his law partner, Scott, why he had nothing to say for himself.
Creeping dementia had mixed with an ill-considered pain medication to produce – for a solid week – full blown hallucinations. And there was hardly a dull moment.
Growing contemplative, my father asked us to consider his new business venture – pig races. Race tracks would be constructed, the public would thrill to the novelty and the wagering revenue would put OTB to shame. The gravity and specificity with which my father described the project indicated that he had thought this through carefully and was ready to launch.
Wanting to be compassionately engaged at all times, I inquired whether this would be akin to horse races, where the animal had a rider, or like dog races where the animals ran rider-less.
His eyebrows rose in sudden animation, a fresh sparkle illuminated his intelligent eyes, as he said with a smile: “That would be up to the pig.”
He had made a joke. And we all knew it. And it was, in fact, very funny. With license finally granted, we laughed with the gusto of all our pent-up emotion. It was a moment of grace.
My father was my mentor and my best friend. I adored him. He was smart and tough: a six-foot, barrel-chested, Harvard Law graduate who made Perry Mason look pusillanimous and slow-witted. A man who was equally at home before the Supreme Court or in a street brawl.
But he was more than smart, he was wise. He seemed to have acquired a life philosophy that kept him centered and gave perspective. I frequently asked him for advice. When he gave it, I took it, and then slept soundly – because if my dad said it was the right thing to do, well then, it was. End of story.
To lose such a powerful relationship of love and trust is, of course, a sad thing. But, to have lost that relationship – due to dementia – a full nine years before he passed, was a source of torment. He ceased to be that personal oracle dispensing wisdom to his loving son. Then he ceased to be a source of intelligible conversation of any kind.
His final passing four years ago was a source of relief. Better still – and perhaps less objectionable to say – his passing finally allowed my happy memories to push back against the sadder experiences that had been crowding them out. To some extent, my father’s death is gradually giving him back to me.
And now my mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And here’s the peculiar part – I have a hard time thinking about it without focusing on the blessings that I have experienced in connection with this terrible malady.
• She is still in her house and looked after day-to-day by a savvy and fiercely loyal housekeeper/assistant whom I have placed on an ADP-managed payroll;
• A sweepstakes obsession has been effectively dealt with by diverting mail to a post office box;
• Profiting from past experience, we have obtained a will, a living will and a power-of-attorney in a timely manner;
• My father left the economic wherewithal to take care of my mother’s needs and we have made great strides in using the power-of-attorney to protect those resources;
• We researched, and have initiated, the legal process by which a concerned family member can prompt the state DMV to evaluate fitness to drive;
• In all these efforts, I have enjoyed the assistance and unquestioning support of my sisters – one of whom bears the brunt of the day-to-day issues.
My mother believes that her house was excavated and transferred to the other side of town. She is indignant about it – and I can’t say that I blame her – since no one asked for her permission. Well, of course they should have asked.
She doesn’t so much mind that they left two bedrooms behind – she didn’t use them much – but does want the town to replace a missing staircase. Fair enough.
A few weeks ago, a police officer drove my mother home after she had gone to the station house to ask for a phone book to look up her own address. She was proud of her resourcefulness. The police asked us to disable the car. It is now parked in my driveway.
My sisters and I draw strength from each other. We find humor where we can. And we take pride in the positive steps we have taken.
At first the positive steps did not come easily: my mother is – and continues to be – a tough and brilliant woman who resists any incursions on her independence however well meant they may be.
For a while we were behind the curve. Now we are right there – and taking meaningful steps to get ahead of it. My wife says that we are “amazing” – and my chest inflates a bit when I hear that.
And I suddenly feel very good about myself. Surprising moments of grace, which I seize with both hands.
Lee Seham is a labor and immigration lawyer who lives in Chappaqua with his wife and two sons.