The eyes that once danced with life—-eyes that could focus with the intensity of an eagle after its prey or love with the affection of a mother for her baby—- now stare blankly at nothing, emotionless. I peer into those eyes, hoping for something: maybe the reboot of a soul, the reemergence of then into now, the return of the Old George I miss so much.
The first time I shook hands with him the palms of my hands were sweaty, for I was nervous. He was the father of the girl I wanted to take to the homecoming dance my senior year in high school. The only hitch was, she was four years younger than I.
“Hey Whitlock, going for the young girl?” my friends teased.
George wasn’t amused.
And that was the first time I remember those eyes, squinting as they did in my direction, sizing me up, surveying my actions.
During the next three years that I would date his daughter, his suspicious eyes would come to look upon me with trust. His once restrictive eyes became giving ones.
And then I departed and didn’t see those eyes for 27 years, until as circumstances would have it, I was reunited with his daughter.
On our wedding day, his eyes glistened with pride, and for the next ten years they would delight when we arrived and sadden when we left. And while we were together, they sparkled with a glint when he bantered and narrowed to a gaze when he reflected. And all the while those bright eyes bubbled like a fresh cherry limeade soda, adding fizz to life.
Until about a year and a half ago when they began to go flat and dull, dimming into a vacant stare.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. Many people use Alzheimer’s and dementia interchangeably, but they are not the same. Dementia is a broad category while Alzheimer’s is a specific type. Since my father in law’s diagnosis, I’ve learned that dementia isn’t technically a disease but rather a group of symptoms that affect mental tasks like memory and reasoning. George can recall the past with specific detail and then repeatedly ask what the plan for the day is. Sometimes he is clear; other times he is confused.
Dementia can be caused by a variety of conditions. Alzheimer’s just happens to be the leading one. Since it is a condition that results from damage to the brain, it’s not something one can determine to overcome with willpower.
According to the World Health Organization, 35.6 million people suffer from dementia. It’s a major cause of disability among older people and places an emotional and financial burden on caregivers. I’ve already seen the effects on my mother-in-law. In their 52 years of marriage, he has been her rock, her navigator, her love. He is still very much the love of her life and always will be, but she can no longer lean on him as she once did, for he is more dependent on her than she is on him.
“How did you sleep last night?” I ask before they leave for the airport after a five day visit with us.
“To tell you the truth, I can’t remember where I slept last night,” he says, befuddled. “Now remind me, where are we going?”
“Oh yes,” he chuckles nonchalantly when I tell him, as if being unable to remember where he has been and where he is going and what he ate five minutes ago is no more serious than misplacing a fountain pen or forgetting a friend’s cell number.
I fought back tears then just like I do now as I write this column.
As he gets in the car to leave, I look square-on into those eyes, telling them with mine how much I love him, for I know not what if anything my father-in-law’s eyes will say the next time I see them.