Thursday, June 10, 2004

”I feel for you, Nancy. I know what you’re going through.” My mother has said that many times in recent years. Yet she never broke down — until Saturday, June 5, the day that Nancy’s Ronnie died of complications from pneumonia and Alzheimer’s disease. That afternoon my mother said it again. “I feel for you, Nancy. I know what you’re going through. Then she surprised me by adding, “Imissyour daddy,” and tears began welling in her eyes.

As my mother feels for Nancy, I feelformy mother. My dad, a heraldic artist and portraitist, diedof Alzheimer’s in 1991.Wedid what we could for him. But my dad’s primary caretaker was the love of his life for 42 years — my mother.

She bathed and fed him. She consulted with his doctors and made certain that he took his medicines. She witnessed — day in and day out — the torturing thievery of the disease called Alzheimer’s.

It is a disease that does not rob its victims outright. Instead, it slowly sucks the essence of its victims, and their physical selves deteriorate. Eyes that once sparkled with excitement appear to look only inward, as if they were in search of a destiny embedded deep inside their souls. Seemingly, thoughts, feelings, memories and all things learned get tied up in an incredible knot, leaving people like my dad and Ronald Reagan unable to distinguish what is from what was.

Those deficiencies — and some that occur in the later stages of the disease, including suspicion and paranoia, disinterest and oral ramblings — are inevitable. In its final stages, incontinence is inevitable, muscles often atrophy, and the internal organs no longer can carry on.

An estimated 4.5 million Americans are afflicted with Alzheimer’s. There is no single test that is given for diagnosis. Many people, in fact, elude diagnosis until they reach the late stages. Early on, some of them are passed over as appearing inebriated or as being afflicted with the so-called old folks’ disease, senility.

That is precisely what happened with actress Rita Hayworth, the redheaded “Love Goddess” who placed No. 2 to Betty Grable, a blond, when it came to World War II pin-ups. Miss Hayworth was semi-retired in 1971 when she agreed to film “The Wrath of God.” To the shock of the cast and crew, Miss Hayworth could not digest the script and at any moment would become extremely agitated. In fact, she had to be coached line by line and coaxed into several scenes. She was accused then, and for some time afterward, of being drunk, under the influence of drugs and senile. She later was diagnosed with a then-little-known disease called Alzheimer’s. Then-President Reagan himself praised Miss Hayworth and her family for shining public spotlights on the debilitating disease when the actress died in 1987.

It was about that time that my dad began a more pronounced decline. No longer able to drive, my mother became his chauffeur and my younger brother became his barber. One of my daughters would read to Granddaddy just as Granddaddy had read to her. When he began to try to leave the house on his own, having not a clue where he was going or why, we informed our neighbors and strung bells to the doors to give us ample warning.

Having to bathe him, feed him, clothe him and soothe him — all the things your father had done for you — is something I wish on no one. To witness Daddy’s inquiring mind and busy hands in an utter state of dormancy after so many, many years of creativity, is a sight that stings the soul.

When he passed peacefully one October morning in 1991, I kissed his forehead and realized how blessed he was to finally be in the restful and peaceful arms of the Lord.

My parents always had been my heroes, but as Daddy suffered, the quiet strength and character of my mother rose to every occasion. She never wavered in faith or deed,understanding,asher preacher grandfather had raised her, that it is God’s path that we are destined to follow.

Ron and Nancy Reagan similarlyheldsteadyafterhis Alzheimer’s diagnosis. That the Reagans certainly could afford round-the-clock nursing and respite care is irrelevant. It is witnessing the disease slowly erasing everything that was wonderful about your loved one that separates the caretakers from the caregivers.

This week, all eyes were on Nancy Reagan as she put cheek to casket and told her beloved — as she has done countless times — “I love you.” Our faith tells us that the love of her life no longer is here on Earth or in that flag-draped casket. Ronald Wilson Reagan was called to his ultimate home on June 5, and his homecoming ceremony will be held today as his remains are laid to rest. But we feel for Nancy Reagan, nonetheless.

Indeed, the tears our family shed are not so much for the 40th president, but for his Nancy, who must, as the spouses of Alzheimer’s victims do, soldier on.

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