Roy and Virginia at Lake Michigan 1936

They were married a good long time. Longer than most of us will be married. My mother would say, “Nobody knows what’s in a marriage but the people in it,” so I hesitate to describe their relationship but, to me, it seemed that there plenty of rough times, long periods of fine. Theirs was a ‘no doubt’ relationship, inconceivable they would ever split up, no matter how badly the ship was listing. You knew that if you ever surprised them in the kitchen. They were always really into each other.

But my father was a tough, bottom-line guy. He was ridiculously self-sufficient, a direct result of coming of age in the Depression and being the son of a carpenter. As a kid, he made his own skis, he built a house, fixed our cars, climbed on the roof to straighten our antennae, rewired and re-plumbed things. Once, as a single mom, I called him to ask what to do about a frozen pipe. “Take a blowtorch to it.”

There was no point in complaining or being weak around Dad. Got a problem? Fix it.

But Alzheimer’s Disease can’t be fixed. He knew that. He took my mother to all the right doctors and made sure she took her meds. “They don’t do any good, I don’t see what’s the point.” He did it anyway.

They kept playing couples golf, a big part of their retirement life, until she started picking up her ball and putting it in her pocket and walking it to the next hole. Unable to tell the others in his foursome that his wife had Alzheimer’s Disease, they quit playing even though he loved the sport and had played for decades. “Oh, it’s not a big deal. We’ve played plenty of golf.”

Knowing that she shouldn’t be driving anymore, he started tutoring her for her driver’s test, a process that went on until she lost interest. “I couldn’t just take her keys away.”

My father would write me letters during this time. We were in contact but had been estranged for years and were rebuilding our relationship. Each letter would update me on the news about town and then include a phrase, “Mom is about the same. But she has stopped cooking [or reading or crocheting or whatever used to be important to her]. He would do this in the most minimalistic way. And then he would add, “This wouldn’t be a good time to visit.”

Sometimes it was a good time to visit and I did. I watched the tough guy, the ‘got a problem? solve it’ guy, protect her. He protected her from situations where she would make mistakes, redirected her as expertly as a trained social worker. I wondered sometimes, aren’t you out of gas, Dad? although I never said this. I watched my mother, irritated when my father urged her to eat more, fling a pea at him with her spoon like a middle schooler in the early stages of a food fight. He smiled at her. She ate her peas.

He read the paper while she went downstairs to the pantry and put Christmas bows on the canned goods. “That’s what she does. She likes to make it look pretty.”

Who was this person?

My mother’s Alzheimer’s Disease had made my father a gentle man. He was always a decent man, a fair man, and, good grief, a hard working man. But her illness had changed him so fundamentally that it’s hard to describe. He became, and I searched for the word for a while, he became accepting. Accepting. That’s what it was. He accepted her, their situation, their future, even when it had to have been so hard and so sad. And the acceptance made him a gentler, kinder person.

So I know that Alzheimer’s Disease is a terrible thing but I also know that out of every terrible thing, there can be a fine thing. And my parents’ marriage, especially the end of it when my mother’s mind became lost to Alzheimer’s Disease and my father took care of her nearly until the day she died, was a very fine thing.
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Today is World Alzheimer’s Day