Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s marriage

I Commemorate my Dad’s 100th Anniversary; Ralph Celebrates Him Daily

scotch.jpgMy father would have turned 100 yesterday if he were still alive. Ralph and I celebrated with one of Dad’s favorite dinners: roast beef with truffle sauce, or rather a cheap cut of beef I found on sale and a dab of Croatian truffle olive spread we received as a gift.

“I really miss Charles,” Ralph said several times during the meal. Charles was my father. Ralph brings him up almost every night at dinner. And frequently at other times as well.

“You know I was thinking about your dad today.” “Remember the time your dad….” Charles was a character.” “I really miss old Charles.”

Me too.

My father was tall and elegant, charismatic if not traditionally handsome (bald but in a Yul Brenner way), an extrovert both charming and domineering. And he definitely had a temper. My siblings would agree that he was a better father to his daughters than to his sons, who were made to feel that they didn’t live up to his standards and expectations. My sister and I adored him, and as a little girl I never doubted that he adored me back, but our relationship grew complicated during my teens as I began to rebel. We never quite regained the closeness.

But if anything redeemed me in my father’s eyes it was Ralph.

Ralph and Charles were soul mates. They came from completely different backgrounds—my father the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who made good and sent my father to an Ivy League college, Ralph the son of a Pentecostal mother who spoke in tongues and a father raised dirt poor in the hills of Alabama with ancestors who fought in the Civil War and possibly the American Revolution—yet they recognized themselves in each other from their first meeting.

They liked to schmooze as my father called their never-ending conversations about business and politics. Again, it would seem they had little in common. My father ran the business his father had started; Ralph was an entrepreneur just starting his real estate business when they met; my father was a Nixon republican, Ralph still a socialist when I introduced them. Nevertheless they talked and they talked and they talked, often loudly though never angrily, into the wee hours long after my mother and I had gone to bed. No doubt they were fueled by scotch, my father’s drink of choice, which he introduced to Ralph.

After a restaurant dinner with my parents months before Ralph and I ever discussed marriage, Ralph told me that my father had proposed while I was in the ladies room. My father used my absence as an opportunity to tell Ralph he would be very happy to have him as a son-in-law. I am not sure how Ralph responded.

Of course I was pleased that my father approved of my choice in husbands, but I admit I was also a bit jealous that my father clearly enjoyed Ralph’s company more than mine. I can only imagine what my brothers felt witnessing Ralph and Charles’s rapport, a rapport they did not have as Charles’s sons.

As for Ralph—whose own father, a skilled but uneducated mechanic, was a master sergeant when he retired after twenty years in the air force and never quite adapted to life as a civilian—he suddenly had the father he’d always wanted. He listened to my father’s advice with rapt attention. He lapped up the affection and praise.

And when my father died at 73, Ralph mourned much more deeply than he had when his own father died.

Months later, a whippoorwill settle outside our bedroom window at the farm and Ralph and I began to joke that the bird was my father’s reincarnation keeping us up at night . It was a comforting joke, an intimacy I look back to now with nostalgia, but it was a joke, a way to ignore or minimize sorrow.

Since Ralph’s cognitive impairment began, my father has loomed larger in his memory. As I have mentioned before, Ralph only holds onto happy memories these days. And his memories of my father are among his happiest. In the last few years he has decided that my father’s old marble top bar, now in our small formal parlor, is haunted by my father. In a good way of course. At least several times a week he calls me to come into the room because he senses my father’s presence.

Pre-MCI Ralph might have joked about a whippoorwill, but he is completely sincere now. And his belief is NOT a case of dementia. It is a case of affection so strong that it has taken a shape or at least a form. For all the negatives of Alzheimer’s, Ralph’s ability to feel purely is really a joy. And I am a little envious of his relationship with my father all over again.

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Another’s Sorrow

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The other day a friend with whom I’d fallen out of touch let me know that her husband had died suddenly and unexpectedly in the last year. Although I’d met him only a few times, and his was certainly not the first death I’ve heard about lately,  the news struck an unexpectedly sharp chord.

The thought of one’s one mortality is inevitable when someone else dies. Death has becomes a tickle at the back of my thoughts over the last few years , and although I have more or less adjusted to the fact that Ralph has cognitive impairment, I don’t like to be reminded that I am aging too, that my capacities are altering. But I also found myself disturbed for reasons less socially acceptable, less acceptable in every way.

Even as I mourned his death and felt deep sympathy for my friend’s sorrow, I found myself comparing marriages. My friend and her husband had shared a long marriage, one of those rare solid marriages that withstand challenges, obstacles and the inevitable periods of disconnect that happen to us all, only to grow stronger with the passing years. While there had been physical impairments, they had shared travel and adventure right up until the end. Ralph and I share so little. The stab of petty envy I felt was ridiculous—she’d lost her husband for heaven’s sake—but I felt it.

And what’s worse. I also found myself envying the purity of her grief, longing to possess that capacity for heart-wrenching love for a spouse. My love has become so mottled.

These are embarrassingly ugly reactions to another’s loss I know. But I record and sort them out so I can put them aside. Grief is complex. I am only beginning to navigate its complicated waters.

 

2 Conversations With Ralph–one bittersweet, the other just bitter

 

When the kids were small, I always knew our best conversations happened in the car.dialogue.jpgStrapped in seatbelts the kids tended to open up more about their lives; now Ralph does the same. We were driving home from a visit to his dermatologist when he brought up an issue that has clearly been bothering him.

“My IQ score has dropped,” he announced out of the blue. “Is that normal?”

“How do you know that?”

“I saw it on my chart last visit.”

I don’t know how he saw this nugget of information (or even if he read it right), let alone remembered, but I realize that problems  he cannot sort out seem to get stuck in his brain, like gum on the bottom on his shoe that he can’t shake off.

“Well memory probably affects IQ results.”

“117 is still above average though right?”

“Right.” My heart ached with protective affection.

…xxx…

On the other hand, Ralph and I have always had our worst conversations at night when we are tired and Ralph has had some drinks.

dialogue two.jpg

So last night while I was trying to relax after a long day by watching mindless TV at the kitchen table, Ralph stormed out of the bedroom.

“What was the name of that real estate agent who tricked you into selling too cheap?”

I told him the names of the agents we used, one a friend of his. He grumbled some more and went back to bed, only to return moments later and begin to rant about how we were cheated and I should have known better.

He was talking about some property we sold in 2013, the year he got his diagnosis and was still half running things. He had chosen the agent and begun the negotiations pre-diagnosis; I had completed the deal post-diagnosis. Ralph and I had discussed the terms exhaustively. I didn’t want to sell the building at the time but he insisted.

Those months were among the worst in my life, a time I’d rather not remember myself, filled with my mother’s precipitously failing health, Ralph’s heightened, often angry anxiety over his diagnosis, our desperation to sell our business profitably, the sharp learning curve I had to master while laid up in a cast after I crushed my ankle falling on black ice. I did not necessarily make stellar business decisions, but frankly I handled it all pretty damn well considering.

In Ralph’s head last night, we had sold the property just weeks ago and he was obviously obsessing over the numbers (which he had wrong). As he began to berate me, I pretended to be absorbed in Saturday Night Live. In fact I was stewing in resentment and in memories of Ralph during the middle years of our marriage when I often felt he bullied me.

Then he switched gears.

“Where’s our money now? Who are those people who supposedly manage our investments? How do you know they are not going to take our money? You need to make sure they can’t steal our money.”

What I felt as he ranted was about as far from protective affection as you can get—hot white hate tinged with damp self-pity that I was stuck with him until one of us died.

This morning Ralph brought me coffee in bed, as sweet as could be. The conversation has erased itself from his brain as if it never occurred. I wish I could say the same, but I can’t.

 …xxx…

 

*A side note: as we were entering the examining room, the nurse behind the desk said to another nearby, “The Alzheimer’s patient is here now.” I clearly heard and am sure Ralph did too, but neither of us brought it up, not even in the car.