Alzheimer’s & a daughter’s memory.

The Elephant Ecosystem

Every time you read, share, comment or heart you help an article improve its Rating—which helps Readers see important issues & writers win $$$ from Elephant. Learn more.

Views 1.0
Shares 1.0
Hearts 0.0
Comments 10
Editor's Pick 0.0
Total Ecosystem Rating 0.0
0 Do you love this article? Show the author your support by hearting.

I hold my father’s hands down while I administer the nebulizer. 

He tries to slap my hand away when I put the mask over his mouth and nose—it doesn’t hurt, and I would appreciate how absurd it is if I could muster it, but I can’t right now.

I’m doing my daughterly duty with compassion, and even though it’s exhausting, I don’t care. My dad’s comfort is worth it. I just don’t know how my mother does all of this 24/7; I really don’t. Thankfully she has angels in her life.

After I put the mask on him, I hold his hands down and rub them for reassurance while he breathes in the warm, medicated steam. Later, I place two pieces of gum into his hands. He says, “thank you.” It is such an earnest sentiment, disproportionate to the act, as if I have done some great service, way beyond gum sharing.

I watch resignedly as he pets our dog, who is always by his side. I try to intercept a napkin that goes swiftly into his mouth. He slaps my hand away again. Maybe he thinks it’s his beloved vettila I’m taking away, and that’s why I’m getting the beat down. I don’t know. This sucks. Not just that I have to take care of him, but that I can’t talk to him about anything. No philosophy, no politics, no space, no poetry, nothing. I kiss his hands. The same hands that once expertly clipped aneurysms, now gently yet nervously fidget with no stimulation. These are the same hands that corrected mine on the steering wheel. And the hands that used to pick me up when I was a child.

This surgeon’s hands were once patient and never shook. Now they have become impatient and impulsive. 

When my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, my family didn’t have any emotional conversations about it; I suppose we were all in shock. One day he was a renowned neurosurgeon with over 25 years experience, and the next day he was asked to see a psychiatrist before returning to the hospital. He hadn’t harmed any of his patients, but there was evidence that he was forgetting things enough for people to be alarmed. And when the psychiatrist asked him what year it was, dad said 1993.

But it was 1997.

My brother spoke with me on the phone shortly after that and told me dad probably had Alzheimer’s disease. I was barely 25. I thought Alzheimer’s was a disease for old people, like really old people, and my dad was just 63. Then the neurologists at Mayo Clinic confirmed our fears.

My father had dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.

As a neurosurgeon, he knew the precise meaning of this, as he and the brain were on intimate terms. What tragic irony. I remember one day, before the official diagnosis had been made, we were both sitting at the kitchen table. It took me several moments to gather the courage to ask him about his forgetfulness at work, but when I did, he responded severely and in no uncertain terms,

I will never forget the brain.

I felt so sad for him, for his tacit acknowledgement of his forgetfulness, and for his utter certainty that he would never forget the brain. Here was a man who was so passionate about the brain that before medical school, he received a Ph.d in zoology based on his study of, what else, frog brains.

But my dad was more than a neurosurgeon. He was a pilot, a photographer, a lover of philosophy, poetry, art, and Indian classical music. I still see him listening to Carnatic records in our 1970s living room. With his head swaying, he would slap his thigh to the beat or snap, sing, whatever; he would just enjoy the hell out of the music. And then there was poetry. He loved it all. John Keats, Omar Khayyam, Tagore, and most especially Malayalam poetry, which he would sing exuberantly, slapping our shoulders or knees at a particularly gusto-filled verse, smiling all the while. There was a silent reverence that people had for him that I understood because I idolized my father in a way, even though we had some rough years together during high school.

As a teenager in the late 80s, I wanted absolute freedom to listen to Pink Floyd, hang out with my friends, smoke pot, and write in my journal. My Indian parents were not only at times embarrassing, but giant roadblocks to that end—the American freedom I desperately craved. My search for identity was a condition rife with confusion for a young Indian-American person, and I made many bad choices. I wish I could tell him now that I knew he was trying his best to raise an Indian kid in an American world. I wish I could tell him that he taught me well.

My dad was not a god. He had faults like everyone else. He was a very intense individual, and that intensity sometimes manifested in harsh ways, but I choose to remember him, overall, as a very loving and generous person.

Sometimes when I hold his hands, I silently convey all of this to him, and somewhere, beyond the brain, I know he understands. 

The early stages of Alzheimer’s disease are the worst. The repeated asking of the same questions can be mind numbingly torturous. Every day, for the first couple of years, he would ask if someone fed the dogs, even though eventually we had only one dog. It was beyond annoying. The question would be asked a hundred times a day, or at least it seemed like that to us, and if we didn’t answer him right away, he got crazy angry. He was plagued by a laundry list of irrational, strange, and sometimes hilarious behaviors. One time he picked up a family member’s 8-month old baby by the leg saying, this is mine, and then proceeded to take the child to his room, placing him on his bed. For my mother, especially, taking care of my dad was a constant practice of patience and selfless service.

Dad doesn’t recognize anyone anymore, except my mom and sometimes not even her. The trauma of the diagnosis and the horror of the first five years have come and gone. The rising action and the climax are over. I anticipate the resolution could drag on for some time.

I have learned many lessons from my father not only from his general character and way of being with people, but through stock phrases he was fond of repeating. Whenever my brother and I fought over something, and my father overheard the inevitable, that’s mine, he would remind us in a stern tone,

There is nothing called yours and mine here.

As we grew older he would say,

What we know is very limited; it is all God’s grace. 

He stopped repeating this particular phrase a year ago; everyone who interacted with him heard it. It was an aphorism his memory held onto tenaciously, until it too had to go.

My dad taught me the importance of what he called, one-pointed focus, and he gave me the freedom to choose my own path. From him I learned real passion. He was deeply interested in his work, and he studied it voraciously throughout his career. He even bought a 3-D television set to watch his surgeries, which he had to use specialized goggles to view. (He was one of the first nerds, I think.) Videotapes of brain surgery were a constant part of my growing up. I couldn’t believe those were my dad’s hands. The same hands that used to help my mom fry our family’s constant supply of plantain chips could also delicately operate on a spinal cord.

My father’s hands are a landscape in and of themselves. Rivers of veins bulging out of fertile earth. They are a perfect union of working man and artist. When I was a child, I would sometimes peek into my parents’ bedroom and see him lying there just staring at his open right palm. And then at his index finger. This practice was a mystery to me then, but now I think I understand.

It was a meditation on oneness, on the unity of things which only appear to be different.

And when I look at my hands now, I see not just our physical similarities, but also some greater connection of consciousness between him and I and all things.


The Elephant Ecosystem

Every time you read, share, comment or heart you help an article improve its Rating—which helps Readers see important issues & writers win $$$ from Elephant. Learn more.

Views 1.0
Shares 1.0
Hearts 0.0
Comments 10
Editor's Pick 0.0
Total Ecosystem Rating 0.0
0 Do you love this article? Show the author your support by hearting.

Read The Best Articles of January
You voted with your hearts, comments, views, and shares.

S.V. Pillay

S.V. Pillay is a former high school English teacher and current freelance writer in the great city of Chicago. She enjoys writing about religion, spirituality, art, endangered species, the environment, and social justice. She is American by birth (want to see her birth certificate?), South Indian by DNA, a student of yoga, and a proud Generation X’er. She prefers interactions with real human beings as opposed to social networking. And although she owns her share of MP3s, she still listens to records, tapes, and Cds. S.V. Pillay is currently working on her debut novel, a book of poetry, and a bunch of short stories. Click here to follow her on Twitter. Click here to read more stuff.

You must be logged in to post a comment. Create an account.

anonymous Jan 29, 2013 9:05am

[…] I cannot tell her anything that is upsetting or anything that requires her to process feeling beyond those which make her laugh. Luckily I can still make her laugh. We joke about dad sometimes. I tell her stories. But it is lost in the next breath. […]

anonymous Dec 21, 2012 6:58pm

AmericanHealthJournal is interested in partner sites in the health genre. American Health Journal is a health care site containing over three thousand of high quality medical videos. We are looking for website owners who may be interested in submitting content to our site. Please get in touch with us at our contact page on our web site.

anonymous Oct 23, 2012 4:58am

[…] As my father has slipped deeper into dementia, in many ways, his true emotional self has been freed. No longer can he retain his armor of masculine ego and judgment. What pours forth is years and years of unexpressed love. Freed from the bonds of the thinking superficial mind, his true self is radiating all that he never had the courage to speak. […]

Bob Weisenberg Sep 29, 2011 9:08pm

Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

Bob W. Editor
Facebook / Twitter

anonymous Sep 28, 2011 11:30pm

Dear Sunita, I had tears when i was reading you, so beautifully written and some touching article. I have right now my Dad with me too, visiting us in Dublin…and he is not very well. Your article motivate me to spend more and more time with him. Thanks for your deep sharing. Misa

anonymous Sep 28, 2011 4:15pm

thank you for this post, my step mother also suffers from alzheimer's. or at least, my dad is suffering, she no longer knows she has it.
beautiful post.
wishing you well.

anonymous Sep 28, 2011 12:18pm

Thank you for sharing this.

Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
Follow on Twitter

anonymous Sep 28, 2011 2:18am

Dear supi,
It is touching and with profound hopes the thoughts you have penned down will give you more strength for your future endeavours

anonymous Sep 27, 2011 1:18pm

Sunita, This is so beautifully written. In it, I *feel* the pain of a parent slipping away, through the way you described the things once known as 'having to go'. I am sorry that you have known this pain, but I appreciate it that you wrote it down and shared it with the planet.


    anonymous Sep 27, 2011 2:06pm

    Thank you for your kindness and empathy, Temple. And thank you for reading! -Sunita

anonymous Sep 27, 2011 11:18am

So powerful Sunita! I am so sorry. I appreciate the gift your father gave in all he taught you & glad to get a glimpse of it in your writing.

    anonymous Sep 27, 2011 11:31am

    Thanks for the kind words, Kate. And thank you for reading! -Sunita