Patti Davis on Alzheimer’s

Those of us who have watched a loved one slip away into Alzheimer’s know that the experience is—among many other things—a lesson in letting go. It becomes almost an alternate reality; things you never thought would be OK suddenly are. Things you never thought you'd find humor in make you smile and laugh gently—forming a rickety bridge over the gulf of sad moments, but a bridge nonetheless.
The recent news that Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband has found a new love interest in the home for Alzheimer's patients that is now his home, and the corresponding news that the former Supreme Court justice is happy for him is a profound look into the world of this sad and often mysterious disease. The reactions among people hearing about this are pretty much divided along the lines of experience and familiarity. If you've lived through having a loved one with Alzheimer's, you know that all you want for them is comfort and happiness. Memory is secondary; you learn to put that into perspective early on. To those who have not watched close up Alzheimer's inexorable conquest, it must seem odd that a wife would adjust to this, that she even could. But like I said, it's an alternate reality.
One of the most common questions I got about my father, former president Ronald Reagan in the long 10 years of his illness was, "Does he still remember you?" I always knew when I was asked this that the questioner didn't have any relatives or friends with Alzheimer's. It was understandable that they believed that lost connection must be horribly painful.
I have to tell you it wasn't. By the time it was clear that my father really wasn't that sure who I was (although he did recognize me as a woman who was there a lot) he had drifted into a softer, more comfortable realm. Gone were the episodes of agonized confusion, the war between a fading memory and the awareness of being dismantled. Gone were the flip-flops of time and years—thinking he was supposed to be somewhere and was late. There is no shortcut around those episodes; you just have to have patience and wait until they pass.
Then one day they stop coming. Another tide of the disease has washed in, and out, and taken your loved one with it. Some of the turmoil has gone, but also more of their memory. Trust me when I tell you it's not a bad trade-off.
I think it was about the midpoint of my father's disease when I was leaving him one afternoon and I said, as I usually did, "'Bye, Dad. I love you." He looked at me with the sweetest, most innocent eyes and said, "Well, thank you. Thank you very much."
I held onto that moment for a long time, and I suppose I still do. Because it said so much about him. He didn't know I was his daughter anymore—I have no idea who he thought I was. But when I said, "I love you," he responded with gratitude, with true warmth for the words and the sentiment. He responded with his heart.
So much is lost when Alzheimer's claims someone. Memory is only one of the casualties. The days and years you thought you'd have with your loved one fall by the wayside, the conversations you always dreamed of having must be put away, relinquished. But if you can look at the person you love and see their heart shining through their eyes, that's what really matters. If you know they are feeling joy and comfort and some semblance of peace, the way that it's come about isn't really that relevant. Maybe they have found it with someone else; the important thing is they have it.
Sandra Day O'Connor has learned probably the most important lesson that Alzheimer's can teach—that while it can steal memory and time and possibilities, it can never steal love. Love will always be outside its reach. And sometimes those of us left behind understand even more about love by letting go.