The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths. ~William James
My father doesn’t know that my sister, Alice, is dead. He doesn’t know that she had cancer, that she suffered, or that she, in a pain-pills-slur, asked to be buried in a red dress with no shoes.
My father doesn’t know that I am his daughter, Elizabeth Emily, the girl he nicknamed “E.E.” for brevity and affection. He thinks I’m my other sister, Valerie, because in his mind I am still twenty years old, not thirty. I am fifty pounds lighter, with a ponytail and headphones. In his mind, I have never changed his diaper.
My father doesn’t know he has Alzheimer’s disease. He thinks it is 1964 and that he has just signed up for another tour in Vietnam. He’s leaving tomorrow, so can we please stop worrying and press his uniform?
Some days, my father is not a man who needs Medicaid to share a nursing home room that barely fits three beds. He believes he is a California millionaire with so many servants and staff members he can’t keep track of them.
There was a time I felt a naïve ethical duty to correct him.
You see, my father never lied to me. Not about Santa Claus or floating goldfish. Growing up, if I got caught in a fib, he’d gently warn: “Our Heavenly Father hates a liar.” I knew from his steady example that my earthly father did, too.
So, when the most honest person I’d ever met started losing his grip on the truth I panicked.
I remember the first time his reality didn’t match mine. He looked up from his hospital bed and asked, “Where’s Tippi?” I froze. I couldn’t remind him that he’d asked the vet to put his dog down three years ago. I couldn’t lie, not to him, but I knew the truth would be painful, confusing, and cruel. Luckily, my husband piped up, “Tippi’s in Texas.” Technically, this was true.
Several times I tried to tell my father the “real” truth about things he’d say. “We sold the house in Tennessee ten years ago, remember?” I quickly found myself unintentionally hurting him.
I needed help learning how to give him back the very thing my “truth” and his Alzheimer’s disease were taking—his dignity. In the worst moments of seeing him succumb to the disease, I prayed. My prayers were answered by a few heroic nurses who showed me the tools for maintaining dignity: patience, creativity, consideration, and love.
The first nurse, an unlikely baritone, harmonized “Que Sera, Sera” with my dad when he started belting out the song at 2 a.m. The nurse could have demanded that my dad quiet down, or worse, he could have medicated him. Instead, he sang a few choruses like they really were listening to old records, and his reassuring voice lulled my dad to sleep.
Another aide with a soft pink sweater taught me that sometimes a shrug, a warm smile, and a Hershey’s Kiss provide more reassurance than anything we could say.
The best nurses taught me that when a loved one’s mind deteriorates, you must talk to his or her heart. Though they taught me, they never told me. Their actions spoke to my heart and changed it as I witnessed the kindnesses they shared with all the residents.
I remember watching a favorite nurse ask one reluctant woman if she was ready to come downstairs for brunch. This puzzled me because the nursing home stood one-story high and it was 5 p.m. But it made sense to the woman. I later found out why she grinned and hurried toward the dining room. Her mother had called her “downstairs for brunch” every day in her youth and her mind had returned to those happy days.
Another tired afternoon I heard a different elderly woman cursing and screaming. A flustered new aide, in a rush to get everyone to supper on time, had wheeled her out of her room against her will. She fully believed that she’d been kidnapped. She scooted to the edge of her wheelchair seat and thrust both feet at the floor, slamming an imaginary brake. Her hands clutched a plastic baby doll with no shirt and wild hair. She shouted for the police, for a gun, for Jesus.
A wise older nurse ran up to her, smiling an authentic smile, and put some sugar in her voice, too: “Mama, the baby’s hungry. Shall I take you to the kitchen and get her some milk?” The patient relaxed, nodded, and picked up her feet. She cradled her baby doll tightly and off they went with purpose, with dignity, with choice.
I once saw a beautiful young nurse let a gentleman believe she was his late wife. She blew him a kiss before she turned out his light.
Sometimes, my father thinks one of his nurses is one of us. He says, “Be good, honey. I love you.” She replies, “I’ll try. I love you, too!”
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Now, when my father tells me he’s a millionaire or that a dead loved one has stopped by for a pleasant chat, I am happy for him. I relax and smile. He relaxes and smiles back. Our hearts connect the same way they always have. His reality is every bit as real to him as mine is to me, and it is okay for me not to shatter the truths of his world.
Alzheimer’s disease has tripped my father and sent him spiraling down a rabbit hole. His nurses have shown me that if I appear in a tree and tell him that this way is this and that way is that, he will simply lose his head. I have given up hope that, like Alice in Wonderland, he’ll wake up from his surreal dream and come back to us. The nurses who have loved and cared for our entire family have helped me make peace with the fact that he is headed to the same place the other Alice, my sister, has gone. These heroic nurses have rushed around in scrubs and coats like White Rabbits. They have hurried between our world and the equally “real” places and times in their patients’ minds.
I am grateful to these nurses for showing me the way through the darkness and chaos of my dad’s dementia. I will be forever grateful to them for showing me my father’s truth where it lies.
Author: Elizabeth Parker Garcia
From the book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living With Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias by Amy Newmark and Angela Timashenka Geiger. Copyright 2014 by Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Published by Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Chicken Soup for the Soul is a registered trademark of Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.