Mar­ian Keyes: Alzheimer’s and her dad

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - AWW

Last Mon­day morn­ing I let my­self into my par­ents’ house as Dad’s carer was just leav­ing. “He’s asleep now,” she said. “In good form to­day.” The minute I opened the sit­ting room door, I was nearly knocked over by the noise of the telly. Sneak­ily I turned it down by thou­sands of deci­bels, but it was only a tem­po­rary re­prieve be­cause when he woke up he’d no­tice

– he might have Alzheimer’s, but when stuff mat­ters to him, he’s on it.

As soon as I say I’ve a par­ent with Alzheimer’s, I get a dou­ble-clasp hand-squeeze and the “full heart” com­pas­sion­ate gaze. Un­de­ni­ably, Alzheimer’s is a strange, cruel con­di­tion, a bit like an in­va­sion of the body-snatch­ers, where the per­son looks like they used to, but with a new – of­ten un­pleas­ant – per­son­al­ity. In­tel­li­gent, civilised adults can mu­tate into crude, overtly sex­ual strangers, or worse: I’ve a friend whose erst­while gen­tle fa­ther ended up be­ing barred from ev­ery nurs­ing home in Dublin be­cause of his propen­sity for fis­ticuffs. How­ever, my dad has a be­nign ver­sion of the ill­ness and spend­ing time with him is strangely lovely.

I got out my lap­top and started to work and even­tu­ally Dad woke up. “Mar!” This was his name for me when I was a lit­tle girl. “I’m de­lighted to see you!” Then there was a mo­ment of doubt. “You are my daugh­ter?”

“I am. And you’re my daddy.”

“Good!” he said. “I love you.”

“And I love you.”

“You’re as beau­ti­ful as ever.”

“So are you.” And we both laughed.

This might sound sur­pris­ing, but my re­la­tion­ship with my dad has never been bet­ter. Not since I was three years of age, which was when a new sib­ling ar­rived, soon fol­lowed by three more (I’m the el­dest of five), and I felt not-as-good-as and not-as-cute-as and other stuff that sounds pa­thetic, but who ever said that hu­mans are log­i­cal or fam­i­lies func­tional?

I seemed to spend my life seek­ing his ap­proval, knock­ing my­self out get­ting good marks at Spend­ing time with her fa­ther, who has Alzheimer’s, is oddly re­ward­ing for Mar­ian Keyes – un­til the sports chan­nel starts show­ing aer­o­bics. school, but al­ways feel­ing over­looked in favour of one of the oth­ers. I prob­a­bly hadn’t been, but even if I had, so what? Ex­pect­ing par­ents to be per­fect is naive, un­rea­son­able even, and I ac­cept that now, right to my core.

And Dad’s life was tough: he came from ex­tremely mod­est be­gin­nings. Thanks to a math­e­mat­i­cal brain, he got a schol­ar­ship at a good school and qual­i­fied as an ac­coun­tant, but he never stopped be­ing afraid of re­turn­ing to poverty and tak­ing his fam­ily with him. He worked like a dog to give my sib­lings and me a bet­ter life, and key to that was ed­u­ca­tion. So when­ever a child of his was do­ing badly at school – and be­tween the five of us, one al­ways was – he was ter­ri­fied, then en­raged.

At the end of a par­tic­u­larly bad school year, one of my broth­ers or sis­ters, I for­get which, came home with a re­port boast­ing a mark of 19 per cent in French. Calmly my mother got out her biro and changed the 19 to 49. “He’d only up­set him­self,” was her prag­matic ex­pla­na­tion.

Through my high-achiev­ing teens and un­der­achiev­ing 20s, my feel­ings about Dad re­mained com­pli­cated – he scared me at the same time as I longed for his ap­proval, while also sort of hat­ing him.

Even af­ter my books be­gan to be pub­lished, he saw dan­ger at ev­ery turn. When Rachel’s Hol­i­day was a best­seller, he rang to tell me: “You’re num­ber one, but don’t get used to it be­cause there’s some yoke called Brid­get Jones’s Di­ary and it’s fly­ing out of the shops.”

I see now that he was try­ing to pro­tect me from dis­ap­point­ment, but back then, I sim­ply felt that none of my ac­com­plish­ments would ever be good enough.

Nine years ago, when Dad first be­gan los­ing it, I twigged im­me­di­ately, but the of­fi­cial di­ag­no­sis took time. While we waited to have con­firmed what I al­ready knew in my gut, when­ever he made a bizarre pro­nounce­ment or asked a ques­tion that had just been an­swered, ir­ra­tional rage filled me – he was sup­posed to know ev­ery­thing, he was meant to be un­break­able.

I found it hard to be around him, but

Alzheimer’s is a bit like an in­va­sion of the bodys­natch­ers, where the per­son looks like they used to, but with a new per­son­al­ity.

some­where along the line my fury mel­lowed to com­pas­sion, then ten­der­ness. For the past cou­ple of years, Mon­day has been my day with him, giv­ing my hero­ically pa­tient mammy a few well-de­served hours off. While he watches telly, I work. Thank Christ for the sports chan­nel, which has the same mes­meris­ing ef­fect on Dad as Paw Pa­trol on my tod­dler nephew.

But at lunchtime, the sports chan­nel starts show­ing aer­o­bics (please stop, it’s all kinds of wrong!), which Dad has no in­ter­est in. It’s then the ques­tions start. Am I mar­ried? To who? When is he go­ing home to his real house? Has he any money? Where is it? Am I mar­ried? Can he see his mother? Am I mar­ried? Have I a job? Can he go home now? Am I mar­ried? To who?

Ev­ery an­swer is for­got­ten im­me­di­ately and it’s a like be­ing in charge of a two-year-old – the end­less rep­e­ti­tions, the ridicu­lous whims, the bizarre fears – with far fewer of the ob­vi­ous re­wards.

The thing about any sort of de­men­tia, most of the fo­cus is on how hard life is for the car­ers, and God, it so is. I’m in awe of my mother’s pa­tience. But I also have deep sor­row for Dad – he’s liv­ing in an un­fa­mil­iar house and is vis­ited by mid­dle- aged adults who in­sist they’re his chil­dren. He wants to be with his par­ents, but he dis­cov­ers again and again that they’re dead.

And maybe it’s easy for me to feel ten­derly, be­cause, un­like so many Alzheimer’s suf­fer­ers, Dad is ac­tu­ally far nicer now than he used to be when he was com­pos men­tis. He’s de­light­ful, and most days he asks Mam to marry him. He tells ev­ery­one he loves them, when back in the sane old days you’d have had to put a gun to his head to make him ut­ter the “L” word.

I’m not say­ing the sit­u­a­tion is ideal, far from it, and things are only go­ing in one di­rec­tion, but some­times there’s a pleas­ant side ef­fect from one of life’s shitty curve­balls. When Dad and I sit and hold hands and watch the golf on the telly, we’re back at a time of in­no­cence and pu­rity, be­fore mis­un­der­stand­ings and imag­ined slights and all the rest of the life-hard­ened lay­ers of mis­trust be­tween us.

I’ve been given a sec­ond chance at know­ing the un­con­di­tional love I blithely took for granted when I was a lit­tle girl. Even more re­ward­ing, I’ve an op­por­tu­nity to show him how much I love him. Be­cause I do. Very, very much.

He tells ev­ery­one he loves them, when back in the sane old days you’d have had to put a gun to his head to make him ut­ter the “L” word.

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