The Teacher

“Alzheimer's hit him fast,” my friend says. “You just won’t believe how fast it moves. You hope for moments of clarity… You live for those moments.”

The smell of barbecued ribs is in the air. I am with a friend who knows his ribs. His father taught him everything he knows.

My friend can also handle more beer than I can—he can drink several, back-to-back, without spontaneously bursting into “Louie Louie.”

We were good friends once, but we lost touch a long time ago.

I liked his father, who was a natural teacher. For example: his father taught me how to change the oil in my truck when I was a younger man.

He also attempted to teach me to throw a football—which is on the large list of things I never learned. Also on the list: water skiing, pronouncing “Worcestershire,” parallel parking, making my bed, earning a living.

My friend’s father is here today. He is white-haired and shaky. He has Alzheimer’s. He is not the man who once showed me to throw a spiral in his yard. In fact, he doesn’t remember me.

He’s holding a beer can.

My friend says: “It’s non-alcoholic beer. We replaced it with fake beer. It makes him feel like old times to hold a can. We hope it jars a memory.”

The old man sits in a chair between us. His language is a mixture of gibberish and one-liner jokes, and he ends every sentence with “Inallmylife.”

When he starts talking, it’s impossible to understand him.

“Whositwasasittlemershimackinpillowhapper…” he chuckles. “Inallmylife.”

We all laugh—we know by the tone of his old voice that he’s telling a joke. And you always laugh at punchlines, even if you don’t understand them.

My friend answers, “Oh yessir,” to almost everything his father says. And this suits his father just fine. Any response will do.

“Listenlistenlistentome,” his father begins. “Wasabackinnineteenerother…”

“Yessir.”

“…AnshesaidtomeIwasadoosiebut…”

“Oh, yessir.”

“Philorandaosamerjonathan…”

“Yessir, Dad. That’s right.”

“Inallmylife.”

And so it goes.

The old man sits near the grill. He can’t lift the heavy lid, but he tries. His son opens it for him. They look at the ribs together and grin.

The pecan wood making the smoke is from a tree the old man cut down one decade ago. That was back when he was a sharp man. Back when he could operate this grill.

“Alzheimer’s hit him fast,” my friend says. “You just won’t believe how fast it moves. You hope for moments of clarity… You live for those moments.”

A few weeks ago, around lunchtime, my friend got a phone call. It was his mother.

“Your father’s having a good day,” she said. “Hurry up and get over here before you miss it.”

Seconds count with Alzheimer’s. My friend showed up at his parents’ in under five minutes. They sat on porch chairs, facing the street, talking.

“He was clear as a bell all day,” says my friend. “It was like he’d come back in town for a visit.”

But such episodes are getting further between. Still, the family tries to keep doing things to jolt his memory, like barbecuing, playing his favorite music, or telling stories.

Sometimes it works. Most times it doesn’t.

And so the man who once taught boys to throw footballs, sits in a patio chair. His son misses him. But he is beside him.

The old man interrupts our conversation. My friend looks at his father.

The old man says, “Jon?”

It is all he says. Then, there is silence.

My friend sets his beer down. His eyes are glassy. There isn’t much time. There’s no telling how long he’s here for.

“It’s me, Dad. I love you. I love you every day. Every single day, Dad.”

“Love you, too, Jon,” the old man says. Then he smiles.

Yes. Those were the best barbecued ribs I’ve ever had.

In all my life.

33 comments

  1. Dianne Correll - April 3, 2018 5:47 am

    Hope he has more good days!!

    Reply
  2. Pamela McEachern - April 3, 2018 6:01 am

    That was beautiful, not being remembered by one you love hurts deeply, no matter how it happens to be. So glad he had a moment with his Dad.

    Peace and Love from Birmingham

    Reply
  3. Cathi - April 3, 2018 10:30 am

    Sean, Alzheimer’s is a scourge and you expressed it perfectly. I’ve known far too many people affected by it in all my life.

    Reply
  4. Sherry - April 3, 2018 10:58 am

    The pain of Alzheimer’s is to those left behind…so, so hard to watch. My prayers are for the researchers’ success. Small doses of clarity keep the caregivers going…thank you, Sean.

    Reply
  5. Barbara Pope - April 3, 2018 10:58 am

    Patience is a virtue…love is more precious than diamonds and gold….

    Reply
  6. LeAnne Martin - April 3, 2018 11:25 am

    Oh, Sean. Beautiful. Just beautiful. (sniffle) Thank you for sharing your gift. Thank you for handling people’s stories so tenderly. I am learning a lot from you.

    Reply
  7. Ellen - April 3, 2018 11:29 am

    I am in the same situation with my mother. You try to set up pleasant moments for the Alzheimer ‘s patient since they live moment to moment.’sounds like your friend did just that by including him in the rib cooking. Wonderful!

    Reply
  8. Daniel - April 3, 2018 11:50 am

    Amazing.

    Reply
  9. Jan - April 3, 2018 11:57 am

    So beautiful, it hurts! A very familiar story, the story of my mother. You told it very well.

    Reply
  10. Susan - April 3, 2018 12:29 pm

    My Dad passed away in January from Lewy Bodies Disease which is a crazy mix that includes alzheimers. Music always sparked interaction with him and I loved pending days with him. Sometimes he knew me others not. What I hear in your post is that it is awesome when they remember us, but we love them by remembering them every day. This gives them security and often brings them peace. My prayers are with you as you walk this journey. It is so hard but in the end so rewarding.

    Reply
  11. Ken Burton - April 3, 2018 12:29 pm

    I know this story very well. My dad had a moment of clarity in which he looked at me & said “I love you, son.” Then he looked at my wife & said “I love you, Ginger.” Those were the first things in months he said in months that made sense. The first time in months that he knew who we were.Three days later he was gone. But going was not a bad thing because he hadn’t been Dad for a long time.

    Reply
  12. Amy - April 3, 2018 12:34 pm

    This column gave me chills. Such a moving article. Thank you for giving us such wonderful things to ponder each day. Thank you.

    Reply
  13. Connie - April 3, 2018 12:46 pm

    My mom has dementia/Alzheimer’s. It’s a horrible thing, that steals our elderly way before we actually lose them. My heart goes out to your friend. We do the same thing- can’t understand a word she says, but it’s “yes ma’am” and laugh along with her. Then cry when we leave her. There are no words to explain it, unless you’ve seen it. My mom was the most beautiful woman, lovely and vibrant and sweet. Loved to sing (I will never hear Loretta Lynn without thinking about my mom), and loved everybody. Until one day she didn’t. Her good days now are just when she’s not upset about something she imagined, so my advice to anyone suffering along with a parent-enjoy every good minute. They are gone too soon. Love and hugs. Appreciate you taking the time to listen, to all of us.

    Reply
  14. Marty from Alabama - April 3, 2018 12:53 pm

    Such a cruel disease. And not as much for the patient as it is for the caregivers. Most of the time the patient is in their own little space in their own little time. And you, the caregiver, must step back with them. Indeed, sadness envelopes you.

    Reply
  15. Carol Houston Rothwell - April 3, 2018 1:26 pm

    GOD BLESS THE JON’S OF THIS LIFE!!
    Love ya.👼

    Reply
  16. Carol Houston Rothwell - April 3, 2018 1:31 pm

    P.S.Sean,I forgot to tell you,You are part of my morning devotional reading,so powerful is your message….Thank You, Amen
    Love ya.👼!

    Reply
  17. muthahun - April 3, 2018 2:31 pm

    As treatises of Alzheimers go, this is right there at the top. Thank you.

    Reply
  18. Jon Dragonfly - April 3, 2018 2:32 pm

    Sadly, Alzheimer patients aren’t in their own happy little world. They are lost and confused. Seek out the agencies in your community that provide the Second Wind Dreams, a Virtual Dementia Tour. You will better understand what they, and you, are facing. You both will deal with it better when you understand it more. Read about this non-profit on their Facebook page under “Our Story”. https://www.facebook.com/SecondWindDreams/?timeline_context_item_type=intro_card_work&timeline_context_item_source=1589006048

    Reply
    • Janet Mary Lee - April 4, 2018 4:33 pm

      Thank you for sharing this Jon. Truly devastating as so many here have shared. I just pray for all in this unfortunate situation.

      Reply
  19. Jack Darnell - April 3, 2018 3:39 pm

    Faced it with mom and now my sister. I am the only family left. She called as I was reading this. We will be there next week to assist, but today she says, “Are y’all still here?” “No sweetie (she is 82), we are in Florida.” “When did you go back?”
    I can only say we will be there in a week.
    You done good, dude!

    Reply
  20. Jack Quanstrum - April 3, 2018 3:46 pm

    Special story!

    Reply
  21. Jo - April 3, 2018 5:06 pm

    Bless your friend and his mom for handling this terrible disease with humor and love. It is not easy, I know from friends. But to be able to grab the good and go with the bad is a blessing. My heart goes out to them.

    Reply
  22. Wendy Franks - April 3, 2018 5:54 pm

    My wonderful & loving dad died during what was to be a routine test & come back home the following day. He was 66. My once beautiful & vivacious mother’s physical health was so good that she lived with Alzheimers for almost 15 years. There is NO good way to lose a loved one!
    But we are blessed to believe in life eternal & that we’ll be reunited one fine day.

    Thank you for your daily RX for whatever ails us, Sean! We love you.

    Reply
  23. Annie - April 3, 2018 6:25 pm

    Pollen sure is bad today! My eyes are just watering…

    Reply
  24. Edna B. - April 3, 2018 8:05 pm

    Before I retired, I took care of a lot of Alzheimer patients. It’s a devastating disease and difficult for both the patient and the caregiver. I loved your story. God bless your friend Jon for loving and caring for his father. And God bless you for your wonderful stories.

    Reply
  25. Ted - April 4, 2018 1:18 am

    Made me cry…miss my dad.

    Reply
  26. Maxine - April 4, 2018 2:16 am

    Sean this one hurt. My mom was sick with Alzheimer’s for 11 years. So many memories came roaring back just now. Memories that brought tears but also many smiles. The sick years were the most restful of her life, having raised seven in the hills of central Kentucky from 1940…..she was a joy through it all, never happier than when we had gospel music playing.

    Reply
  27. Charlie Tann - April 4, 2018 3:12 am

    Sean: I don’t know how you do it. Your writing is truly a gift and is always a pleasure to read. May God bless your journey and prosper everything you put your hand to.

    Reply
  28. Judith - April 4, 2018 4:24 am

    Makes me cry. Living this same world with my Mom. Wanted to ask her for advise the other day. It hit like a brick wall that she can no longer advise. Miss her sharpness.

    Reply
  29. Linda Parker - April 5, 2018 1:45 am

    I have lived through some extremely difficult times but caring for parents that suffer from dementia is absolutely the hardest thing I have ever done…the only think different I would have done though is to not try to orient my dad to person and place, it took a while to stop struggling to pull him out of it….it was so much better for us both to just be with him wherever he was. I am convinced they are “in there” just can’t get through the fog…but once in a while the curtain parts and it is a gift!

    Reply
  30. ponder304 - April 5, 2018 2:36 am

    Such a horrible disease…pray for the caretakers…..

    Reply
  31. Gerald - June 9, 2018 12:33 pm

    My wife has advanced Altzheimer’s. Has never had one of those “clear” days or times I hear people mention from time to time. Physically healthy but mentally somewhere else. I keep hoping.

    Reply
  32. Smitty - June 9, 2018 4:19 pm

    Good post, Sean, but it brings tears. I am watching a close, loved relative disappear into this same terrible pit. A little worse every week, and very few lucid moments. And especially bad for the primary caregiver. 😥

    Reply

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