I'd never met someone with Alzheimer's before. And I didn't really know how to behave or what to do.
©choreograph / Envato
I made a mountain out of discovering my father in law has Alzheimer’s Disease. Here is my story about love, soccer, and discovering my father-in-law.
It was the summer of love for us. We had just started making the big announcement to our friends and families. I was going on this crazy adventure of moving to a foreign country to be with the man I loved, and all consequences be damned. We were going to move in together, get married as quickly and quietly as possible, (No, mom, for the 11’th time, I’m NOT pregnant!), and figure out how to make a life for ourselves in this beautiful enchanted place called Italy. The only thing coming between us and that magical moment? A lot of awkward conversations with our families, at work, with the immigration authorities, and those dreaded first meetings with the in-laws.
My soon-to-be husband came to Romania first. He sailed through meeting my parents for the first time as if he were born to do it. He spoke French to my father and German to my mother. He even thanked my grandmother in Romanian for the apple pie. He generally delighted everyone like the over-achieving bastard he is. Then, we agreed, at some point during my next visit to Italy, it would be my turn to meet his family.
Before we go on, you really should know something about me. I’m not, what one might call, a social butterfly. I’m more of a social moth. Whenever people are social around me, I prefer to retreat to a dark and cool corner and wait it out. The thought of being observed and judged throws me into a full-on, sweaty-palmed, nauseated panic.
When I’m walking down the street, and run into a police officer, I think “Quick! Act normal! Act like you have nothing to hide!” even though I’ve never, ever, not once, had anything to hide. Then, if they look at me, I invariably forget how exactly one is supposed to walk. I might even begin doing it in a weird, bouncy fashion that looks like I absolutely do have something to hide.
My father in law has Alzheimer’s disease
Needless to say, I was beyond blind panic when I arrived in front of my father-in-law’s front door. I knew I was about to be studied beyond any level of comfort. The only thing my future family knew about me was that they had to accept me. They didn’t really have any other choice.
This wasn’t even a planned encounter, oh no. I didn’t get the benefit of planning and forethought. We were just on our way to the hotel when my husband basically pulled the car over and said “Let’s do this. Now.” By the time I woke up from my post-flight drowsiness and took the pink heart-shaped cotton out of my ears, we were there. He was ringing the doorbell.
Above and beyond the other issues and fears, all I could really think about was that my father in law has Alzheimer’s disease. And I’d never met someone with Alzheimer’s before. And I didn’t really know how to behave or what to do. And I really should have done more research or asked more questions, or something. We didn’t even talk about it much. Of course, I now realize that it wasn’t exactly an easy topic to talk about for anyone. At what point during a fast, volcanic courtship do you throw that bit of information in? Over Breakfast?
“Oh, by the way, your father in law has Alzheimer’s disease.”
And I hadn’t really read anything about the disease. Nor had I asked anyone about it. In the midst of all of our tsunami of feelings, it seemed so far away and, I’m ashamed to say, unimportant. Of course, his father was important. Italians are deeply connected to their families, and my husband was no exception. So I made sure his family was important to me too. I just didn’t think the disease itself was significant, because, well, I didn’t know any better. Nobody volunteered much information either. Whenever I’d tell someone “His dad has Alzheimer’s” I’d meet with the inevitable “Aah.” reply. Nobody seemed too concerned about it. They sure didn’t ask me any follow-up questions! So I figured it can’t possibly be that bad.
Alzheimer’s disease can’t be that bad. Can it?
In hindsight, I realize my husband must have been pretty scared by the idea too. He picked that very moment, as we were waiting for someone to open the door of the house, to give me one last piece of encouragement. He said, “Look, it should be fine, but just in case if my dad freaks out, don’t panic, and don’t take it personally.”
I stifled a crazed giggle that was building up in my throat at the absurdity and unhelpfulness of what he just said. I realized, for the first time, a little too late, that it absolutely could be that bad. It could be very bad.
As I stood on the steps, I tried to quickly summon up the little bits of information I had about his father’s condition. Most of them came from random conversations in between plates of pasta and romantic plans for vacations. I knew he’d been diagnosed a few years ago. I knew it was advanced enough that he needed a full-time caretaker. She happened to also be Romanian, like me. I knew he never got up or moved around by himself. I knew my husband sometimes lost his patience with his father, a fact he still regrets now. I didn’t really understand how he could lose his patience; probably because I didn’t know what it meant to live with someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Knowing, in theory, Alzheimer’s disease affects memory is one thing. Understanding in practice how great the frustration is of loving someone who has always been strong, and bright, and level-headed, and seems to simply be gone, is another thing entirely. That is an understanding that took me a lot longer to reach. It took my husband a lot of time and patience, and heartache, to be able to explain it to me adequately.
A door to seeing Alzheimer’s disease
So, there I was, armed with what little I knew, ready as I was ever going to be, walking into his childhood home. The door opened; I walked into my husband’s memories. It was a beautiful, though confusing, scene. I could smell pasta and hear the sounds of a wood-burning stove. Someone was either clearing or setting the table, the sound of clinking of cutlery and dishes competing with Italian football commentary. The TV was on in the corner; men in shiny shorts were playing soccer on a bright green field. The living room was a mess of colors and objects and paraphernalia.
It was so foreign it felt almost alien to me. The whole thing was so Italian it seemed almost fake, like a performance put together in my honor. Though to be fair, on all the many occasions I’ve been inside that living room, the TV was always tuned into a soccer channel; I wouldn’t guarantee it even plays other channels. His sisters said hello, and one of them even spoke English to me. I can’t remember what she said, I’m not even sure I was listening. The only person I could concentrate on was that thin, white-haired man in the corner, in his chair, intently staring at me from behind his eagle-like nose. I was terrified. A part of me – I’m not proud of – wanted to pretend his dad wasn’t there. I was expecting him to start shouting or cursing at me at any moment. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had.
Instead, he got up. I heard my husband gasp a little bit behind me. His father didn’t stand up for anyone, not for him, not for the mayor, not anyone. He stood up as straight as he could, and he walked to me, with uncanny agility. He grabbed my hands between his large, warm hands, and broke into the most beautiful ear-to-ear grin. That grin washed away all of my fear and panic. I’m grateful that at that time, I understood Italian well because he spoke directly to me. Most people just used my husband to translate. And he said “I know you can’t speak Italian, but I just want you to say hello to me in Italian. It would make me happy.”
I did, and he laughed, and shook my hands, and went back, slowly, carefully, to his chair.
The rest of that day was a blur to me. Apparently, that moment of lucidity and cleverness was akin to a miracle for my husband. We talked about it on the way to the hotel. It was probably the first time we genuinely talked about his father’s disease. I understood a lot of his reluctance to speak was out of fear of that meeting, and of how it would affect me. We hoped beyond hope that his father would somehow be able to remember that moment and remember me.
As it turns out, we needn’t have worried. From that day onward, until the day he passed away, he told absolutely everyone who would listen that he was soon going to marry “that beautiful Romanian girl that was here.” That I was going to be his wife. I’m humbled by the thought that where my knowledge and understanding failed, my imagination took over and created monsters and fear. My amazing father-in-law, on the other hand, allowed the gaps in his memory to be filled with a beautiful story that made him happy.
And that made us happy.