Years ago, when a television news show discussed Alzheimer’s disease, my mother misheard the name as “Al Zimmer’s disease.” It became a running gag in our family to refer to a spell of forgetfulness as a visit from Al Zimmer. The joke lost its humor six years ago. That was when we learned that Al Zimmer had come to call on my father and had taken up permanent residence.
When the doctor informed Dad that he had Alzheimer’s disease, Al Zimmer translated this to Dad as, “We want you to take extra pills to make you smarter.” There was no point in trying to correct him. When Al Zimmer holds his hands over Dad’s ears, the facts have little chance of filtering through his fingers. When Al Zimmer plants a lopsided idea in Dad’s head, you can’t pry it out with the proverbial crowbar.
From time to time, though, my father’s big heart evicts the uninvited guest—at least temporarily. One such occasion was my niece Angie’s wedding, the year after Dad’s diagnosis.
My sister, Marie, had died of a brain aneurysm the day after giving birth to Angie. The loss had devastated my parents. Now Mom and I keenly felt Marie’s absence on this special day for her only child. Meanwhile Dad enjoyed the wedding festivities, seemingly oblivious to the painful undertones. That, I supposed, was Al Zimmer’s wedding gift.
The day after the wedding ceremony, Angie and her husband, Richard, hosted a barbecue. The evening air grew too chilly for Dad’s thin blood, so Mom, Dad, and I pulled our lawn chairs close to a little bonfire, away from the partying crowd. Some of Richard’s relatives joined us.
My father, normally a sociable old fellow, sat very quietly while the group chatted about books, knitting projects, and German potato salad. I was rather relieved that Al Zimmer refrained from regaling these new acquaintances with reminiscences about Dad’s World War II service in Burma and the round-the-world voyage that had carried him there and back. He usually could be counted on to repeat the stories over and over, word for word—each time with as much pride and gusto as the first telling.
After a while there came a lull in the conversation. Dad cleared his throat. But he did not launch into war stories.
“I remember the day in the hospital,” he began in a low but clear voice, “when the doctors told me there was nothing more they could do for my daughter.”
A dozen fire-lit faces turned toward me. I was the only daughter Richard’s family had been introduced to. I shook my head. Not me.
“They said they might be able to save her baby,” Dad said. “That was Angie.” He stared into the snapping flames for a few moments and added simply, “That was not a good day.”
My father closed his mouth and handed the house key back to Al Zimmer. He had said what was on his mind. It was enough.
Life has changed so much since that day! Angie and Richard have an adorable little daughter, Emily Marie. Al Zimmer is firmly entrenched, and Dad no longer remembers that he was in the war. He isn’t too sure who any of us are now, either, though I’m happy that he usually remembers I’m someone he likes.
After a long series of her own medical problems, my mother finally admitted she could no longer handle the demands of being Dad’s caregiver at the house. Less than two weeks after settling into assisted living, Ma passed away. Dad got through the funeral service and dinner like a champ, but Al Zimmer pretty much took charge after that.
It hasn’t been easy, logistically or emotionally, to oversee Dad’s care from 500 miles away. But the Lord keeps a loving eye on him, with the help of a few gracious friends.
If Al Zimmer is wreaking havoc on you and your loved ones, please post a comment below, and know that you’re in my prayers.
Edit: Five days after this article was posted, Clarence Bonney quietly slipped away to join his Lord, his beloved wife, and his daughter Marie. Rest in peace, Dad.
Come, Dance with Me (Tune: ALMA; Brackett)