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Saying Goodbye to Papa “J”

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

   When my sister-in-law called to share Papa “J” wanted us to visit him, we knew it was time. It was time for my husband and I to take our kids to spend some precious moments with him, moments he may never recall. You see, Papa “J” is in the grips of a mentally, emotionally and physically debilitating disease that overcomes even the fiercest men and women, notably including one of our nation’s former Presidents, Ronald Reagan. Alzheimer’s disease is heartbreaking for it’s victims and the families they often don’t even recognize as time goes by. 
     We knew for a while that Papa “J” was becoming more and more forgetful and seemingly lost. His wife, my childrens’ grandma who past away over a year ago, helped by often reminding him of his fleeting thoughts. While his long term memory remains in tact, his short-term memory fails him. Before our visit, we hadn’t experienced first-hand the impact this has on his daily routine and in the scheme of his entire livelihood.
      We were ill-prepared and unsure what to expect upon arrival. Great start when we were greeted by Papa “J” waiting for us outside his home. There he was sitting with his cane in hand–he wears braces on both legs as a result of having a dual operation for prostate cancer and several herniated discs. He became immobilized and lost feeling in parts of both legs so the braces were added for stabilization.
     “HEY, you guys are finally here; Let’s go to the local seafood restaurant for dinner,” chanted Papa “J.”  He was the picture of health–for an 81 year old that is. And our dog, who we brought on her first long distance trip, fell instantly in love with this man with the cane. He reciprocated barking back and teasing her with his “walking stick.”
     Once we got settled in, we happily drove to the restaurant, and I recall thinking, “maybe some of our fears resulting from incidents involving Papa “J”s  memory loss could be allayed for awhile given his seemingly confident, cogent and relaxed demeanor.” He didn’t seem like the man who paid disreputable landscape contractors thousands of dollars for work they never did because they lied to him-knowing he is easy prey for a good con. Nor did he seem like the man who, a few months earlier, drove to Georgia to visit my sister-in-law, arrived at her home, then immediately left and drove the entire way back home because he forgot why, what, and where he was supposed to be? These incidents had prompted us to contact the police and served as a wake-up call to how lost Papa “J” often is.
      Now, he didn’t seem lost at all. I listened as he explained to my husband where the restaurant was and about all the different activities in the area. He shared lots about his past with my kids and was able to recall so much of his history.
     Once inside the restaurant, the situation changed. Papa “J” asked us several times where we were. At first, my children giggled because they thought he was kidding. Once we told him where we were, he responded the same way he would the next week we spent with him–each time he didn’t know what was going on, “Oh, yeah, that’s what I thought.”
     And so began the realization and understanding that although it appears that Papa “Js” long-term memory is in tact, his short-term memory is not, and at times is worse than others. Worst of all, I can see his fear and sadness, and occasionally, the anger, each time he’s unable to recollect who, what or where we are.
     Each day he’d awake spirited like a little kid, asking what we were going to do, followed by what we wanted to eat for dinner. These same questions were repeatedly asked throughout the day–as were many other inquiries he continued to echo. At times, he even forgot my children’s names.
     We had to throw out much of the expired food in the refrigerator and buy many daily items he didn’t have, including laundry detergent. Surprisingly, his extra refrigerator in the garage housed about 200 frozen prepared meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which he eats on a daily basis–when he remembers to eat.   
     Yet, this once World War II Vet, fondly remembers times with his wife–and even guided us to her gravesite to visit, two hours away. We spent several joyous moments laughing at silly things in life including mimicking our dog. We shopped and went out to dinner often and watched a few movies with him. Although he shared he loves to go on walks, when we went with him, he could only walk down one block before having to sit down. I could see how disappointed he was–this former long-distance track star! As always, I joked with him about eating more fiber to get his legs moving next time, and we giggled : )
     When it was time to leave, it was difficult. He asked if we could stay, maybe come back in a week or so. We all knew that our next visit would be to move him out of this home he loves to an assisited living facility, closer to family. Watching our parents, grow old, is so very “hard to do.”

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