A Beautiful, Yet Sad Story Concerning Alzheimer’s: Hello in There…

Mister D: Some may find this too sad…it did bring tears to my eyes. But I just loved this article…lovingly, yet painfully written. It just made me realize how important it is to stay connected and in the moment…you never know what’s around the corner…I hope you get something out of it…

It doesn’t happen overnight
Richard E. Cosgriffe, my Daddy, is 76 and has probably had Alzheimer’s for 10 years. It’s difficult for his doctors to pinpoint. The disease doesn’t happen overnight. But looking back, we remember details and specifics that suggest the disease was beginning to erode his brain. Once at our Beartooth place, he accidentally broke the glass in a door, laughed and walked into another room. (“Bang,” he said, very unlike daddy. The old daddy would have removed the glass shards, put the frame in the car and handled the repair.)

He once asked a sibling, “What’s this?” and pointed to a jar of mayonnaise.

As doctors began diagnosis, there were other incidents, some when he was still driving (he hasn’t for several years). He once backed into a mailbox but had no recall of it.

He put a porcelain dinner plate on the stove, turned the burner to high and tried to fry an egg.

On his semi-annual trip to see our Atlanta sister Misha, he packed a suitcase of nothing but flannel shirts.

One lovely autumn day, he overshot our cabin on a walk he’d taken along paths he’d known for 50 years. Good-hearted neighbors returned him, frightened and confused.

‘On Golden Pond’ reminders
It reminded us of the scene in “On Golden Pond,” where Henry Fonda goes berry picking and loses his way back to the woodland cottage.

Comforting him in his bewilderment and frustration, Katharine Hepburn’s character assures him:

“You’re my knight in shining armor. And you’re going to get back on that horse and ride, ride, ride.”

Daddy has his Hepburn now. He didn’t always.

My folks were divorced when I was 17. Now, more than 35 years later, Richard and Ellen are living together again, in separate bedrooms in a lovely apartment at Rocky Meadows.

No, they’re not remarried. But after several other marriages and divorces, my father was alone. The Alzheimer’s had contributed to the decline of his successful business, he’d given up his beloved airplane, and my last stepmother plundered the finances.

My mother, never remarried, has a big heart. Her own health problems include osteoporosis, carpal tunnel and a seriously leaking mitral valve that may require open heart surgery.

Still, she volunteered to be Daddy’s caretaker and suggested they become roommates. With characteristic humor, she handles the shank of the day’s doctor visits and appointments. She appreciates frequent visits and support from my sister, Olivia, and brother, Rick, and out-of-state help and concern from Misha in Georgia, Robbie in California and Patrick in Oregon. They host visits and call often. The extended family of brothers-in-law and partners are patient and helpful, at the ready with a lift somewhere, a walk, an errand, a back-rub. The grandchildren and favorite nieces cherish “Grandpa Dick” and “Uncle Richard,” finding ways to connect on a picnic or reunion. Daddy’s only remaining sibling, an older brother, is heartbroken.

Our parents are ending their days as they began their marriage more than 50 years ago: together and surrounded by loving support, our home cooking, help with shopping and their greatest joy, trips to the theater. A vital part of that equation is mum’s high-school pal, Pauline Hartman, known to us as “Saint Pauline.” She loves theater, too, and chauffeurs my folks to the Alberta Bair Theater.

As we grew up, our parents took us to the theater. Always. We studied piano, strings, brass, woodwinds and vocals. Now, the ABT, Billings Studio Theatre, Venture and college fare are highlights of my parents’ days.

They dress up. They attend string quartets and “Snow White,” Shakespeare and blues concerts. The recent Metra circus was a huge hit with Daddy, a lifelong animal lover and music aficionado. Daddy is still a very social creature.

He loves to dance, shake hands, play a game of cribbage, admire grazing angus or deer on the move. He loves to walk Robbie’s two black labs. His delight in the outdoors is enhanced through Olivia and Rick, who take him for long daily walks in Pioneer Park and on the Rimrocks. “Trees and sky and grass,” he sings, with gusto, to the tune of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas.”

Although a once brilliant pilot who can’t always find the word for airplane now, Daddy still plays “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” on the piano, in six flats!

Recently, he and mum won raves for their inventive Halloween costumes. They dressed as Queen and Royal Consort of an imaginary kingdom named after the family.

It’s not surprising that music, theater and nature are Daddy’s balm. They’ve been part of his life for as long as we remember. Now that he is past the point of fearing the disease, we are grateful. It was torture to hear him say, “Kids, my brain’s going. If it’s Alzheimer’s, I’ll shoot myself.”

At the ABT, still dapper and charming, he greets the ushers, starting with his favorite, Robert Bjertness, whose sweet nature is rooted in his role as longtime caretaker of his late mother. “We enjoy your dad,” says Bjertness. “What’s not to like about such a lovely guy?”

All the ABT folk are friendly, gracious and compassionate. Fellow theater goers are generally agreeable if Daddy wants to say hello.

By day, Daddy works out, plays elaborate card games and computer bridge, delights in company and would love to cultivate a walking buddy or “card pal” of his generation. “My friends have deserted me,” he lamented before we moved the folks to Montana from Oregon.

With families of their own, jobs and classes, the siblings have developed a time schedule that allows my mother a break from her duties. It’s important to give the chief caretaker time to rejuvenate. So we took mum on a trip to Europe and she reveled in the recharge.

With the holidays approaching, Daddy will delight in the decorations and he’ll lend his sweet tenor to the Christmas carols. He may even hum to my favorite apropos song, Bette Midler’s version of “Hello in There”:

“You know, old trees just grow stronger. Old rivers grow wider every day. But old people just grow lonely, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there. Hello’.”

We know there’s no getting better and that the final stage of the disease may mean intensive, around-the-clock assistance that the family can no longer provide. We’re studying the options, grateful for the support here. Our family is cutting its own trail, as we’ve done with all other disease, death and disappointment.

We’re all aging. We’re all dying. Daddy’s illness is teaching us compassion, new ways to connect and invent. We’re dealing with the situation, looking for the silver lining, as another old song says.

For now, it’s in the theater. And in the walks – the trees and sky and grass.

If Daddy smiles and waves at you, do say hello.

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