Marian Keyes: Alzheimer’s and her dad
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.