Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fish and Frog, Cat and Dog

The bus behind the Alzheimer’s wing of the nursing home pictures Jesus the Good Shepherd and His little lambs with the caption “Let the little children come to me.” When my father first went into the home in middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, he had deteriorated to a simple-minded adult who needed supervision in many daily tasks—but I didn’t see him as a little child. For most of his first year there, he carried on simple, thoughtful conversations. I had seen some wrinkly ladies with matted white hair cuddling baby dolls, but mostly, residents slumped napping in wheelchairs. Yes, children nap, but they don’t look crumpled like that. Now I see in my dad, the further he progresses (regresses?) in the disease’s stages, the more childlike he becomes.

Take my visit last Friday, for example. Although I had my bag of tricks containing large color photos and jigsaw puzzles, Dad wanted to play with a wooden puzzle already in the Alzheimer’s hallway. This wasn’t a traditional jigsaw. It was a sound puzzle, a flat wooden block maybe about the size and thickness of a wood cutting board. Cut into the board were eight ovalish indentations. Each piece fitting into these places had an animal picture on it and a small red cylindrical handle. When you lifted a piece out and placed it back, you heard the sound that animal makes.

A few months ago, Dad seemed interested in hearing the names of things, so one way to make conversation was to provide words for what he was looking at. Not so Friday. He showed no interest in my naming the horse or the frog, the cat or the dog. Instead, he entertained himself for about an hour by pulling out pieces and putting them back to make the sounds happen. Mom and I conversed, sometimes including him, but he seemed smilingly content to make the fish burble, the frog ribbit, the horse neigh.

Just before Mom and I wheeled him to the lunchroom, I told him about the Chicago Marathon.
“On Sunday, your grandson is going to run 26 miles!”
Perplexed, worried, and wide-eyed, he asked, “Why?”

Later Mom and I recounted Dad’s ingenuous alarm and laughed heartily. Not that we aren’t proud of her grandson/my nephew. We are, and Dad has always called this young man “our little champion.” My once über-athletic father would have been excited by this feat. Not that we don’t admire self-discipline, healthy pursuits, goal setting, and determination. We do, especially at the level required to run a marathon. It’s just that we don’t understand either why someone would want to run 26 miles, but we pretend we do. Friday’s childlike Dad didn’t pretend.

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