My dad was coming down the stairs with the pages of spiral-bound notebook paper in his hands. He stopped two steps above the ground floor and looked at me. Or at least, he tried to look at me--the Graves' disease he also suffered from limited his strength, so that he always had a slight slouch and moved slowly and with a little trembling. He looked the same as I'd always remembered him, but there was a little less of him to look at now.
He needed those papers for the meeting, he said. I looked at them. He'd taken those pieces of paper from a notebook many days ago, folded neatly, and had put them on the dresser in the spare bedroom where he slept. I never knew what he wanted them there for. He was telling me about the clients and the meeting, and I knew that his mind was back at his career again, maybe five or ten or twenty or thirty years ago. My wife told me this had been happening on and off for days.
Something about the way Alzheimer's disease progresses, it seems, takes away the memories of when the victim is, letting them think that something that happened years ago actually took place a few hours earlier. Dad had worked in engineering and sales for a small manufacturing company in the Chicago suburbs for as long as I'd known him. He'd retired about five years ago. He just didn't remember that right now.
I listened patiently to what he was saying, but it was hard. He spoke so quietly now, and I didn't have the slightest idea in what context these papers existed for him. I looked up into his eyes as he talked. They looked permanently confused, as if he were desperate for anyone to give him an anchor for his mind. Everybody tells him what to do and when, these days, and all he can do is obey. He can't help that he's unable to recall where my mother is, or when my wife's day care children went home, or how to turn the shower on and off.
I took the papers from his hands and reminded him it was time to get ready for bed. It was a routine my mom had entrusted me with while she went on a much-deserved vacation for a couple of weeks: pajamas, brush teeth, one yellow pill with water, and leave the lamp on so that he can see if and when he gets up to go to the bathroom. Normally he'd get up two or three times a night, and I'd rely on the creaking of the door hinge to let me know so I could help him. Tonight, he'd get up five times, four of them to get ready for the meeting he was telling me about right now.
He watched me put the papers down on the other side of the wall, assuring him I'd take care of them. He met my eyes, not turning around yet. Then he said thank you, to me, for helping take care of him these past several days. He wanted me to know he appreciated it. I think I'll always remember looking up at him, there on the stairs, two steps above me where I could look up to him again for the first time in fifteen years and treasuring that moment of lucidity when I could pretend he was still the dad I always knew and respected, and loved.
He said it simply and directly. I told him "you're welcome." He looked at me a second longer, then down at the floor, and then told me a few more details about the meeting. I listened, and then encouraged him to turn around and head up to the spare bedroom to get changed for bed. He did so, carefully so he wouldn't lose his balance there on the stairs, and I followed.
It has been exhausting at times to watch over him these past ten days, for my wife even more than for myself. But her grandfather isn't that different from my dad--he had a stroke two years ago, and now relies on his children and grandchildren to move him from his bed to the living room to the bathroom every single day--and I know she understands. I now know exactly what my mom has to work with every day, and why my brother is so frustrated with watching it happen. And I wouldn't trade this time with him for anything, except possibly the chance to have my father back.