My dad began showing signs of Alzheimer's this year.
By the time he was diagnosed, he was already in stage 4. My immediate reaction was sadness for him. But, as I began to process our new reality, I found that wasn’t the most potent feeling brewing inside. Instead, I found there to be more sadness for myself. Coming to grips with the complexity of my own sadness has been a raw and embarrassing process.
Just in writing that, I feel less than what I want to be. It’s as though I can almost taste the selfishness as the words jog around my mind. However, that is where I'm currently at. That is who I am today… at the deepest and most visceral level. Not only is there embarassment, but it has given way to full blown guilt. Subsequently, this guilt, born from how I’ve been appropriating the sadness, is what I find myself battling everyday.
If you're familiar with the Enneagram personality test, I'm a 4 with a 5 wing. If you're not familiar with it, take that to mean that I'm not necessarily the life of the party. In short, I am an introvert who is simultaneously predisposed to showing just how “unique” I am to others. So at the end of the day when I feel overwhelmed or stressed, I want to retreat—think more the flight rather than the fight—but once retreated, I still want to be seen. Now, this is a 4 with a 5 wing on a bad day, granted. Still, annoying, I know.
So how else would you expect a "4 with a 5 wing" to react when he's finding out that one of his biggest cheerleaders in life—his dad—will soon be forgetting things. It’s there, in that dark, seemingly endless sea of uncertainty and unfamiliarity that my thoughts are being carried. There in that sea is my unspeakable horror, that even in writing this right now makes me sick to my stomach: I am going to be forgotten. It is one of my deepest fears. I can already hear its seductive voice telling me that I'm already invisible… that I mean nothing. And I can already feel the muscle memory of paralysis and of the “flight” tendancy.
However, I can't. I can’t respond that way. I have too many things going on in life. I have my own family. My friends. My students. I can’t hide. While my dad’s situation is one unique to him right now, a blinding disease we all share is the propensity toward an overinflated selfishness. If I bloat up in that, then not only am I still in the same spot that I currently am, but now my family and those others will also feel the loneliness of being forgotten by someone. So, I choose to not spiral into that maelstrom of paralysis, but instead will embrace the anxiety that this season of life is proving to be staunchly rich in.
Helping me in this journey are two stories: I Kill Giants and A Monster Calls.
The first—I Kill Giants shown above—is a graphic novel wherein a daughter cannot cope with an ongoing trauma, and instead envisions herself killing monstrous giants, which are representative of her trauma. In the end, she realizes that these are but a fraction of the terror she's been afraid of engaging. In her resolution she chooses to use that imagination as having been a means for preparing her to face the real terror her family is encountering.
The other—A Monster Calls as pictured above—is a short story, where a son refuses to accept the reality of his family trauma. However, his story unfolds through the creation of a monster that calls him out of his stoicism, so as to teach him how to properly focus his sadness, anger, and fear. Its purpose was to show the boy that these feelings will swallow him if he does not stand.
Although very similar to one another, the major difference between these two works is in what a monster might be created for. Both of these stories teach us that the terror facing a child whose parent has a terminal illness is fiercely real. But in their own encouraging way, they also teach us that it isn’t necessarily foolish to feel as helplessly small as a child in these moments. No matter our age or walk of life, something will come that will cast a great shadow over our vision and distort our perspective. The difference is in whether we make mountains out of molehills while ignoring the real mountain, or whether we allow ourselves to be spurred by the sadness and anxiety inside instead of paralyzed by it.
If we take the latter route, you can be sure that fear, sadness, and anxiety—all of which are rooted in hopelessness—are waiting. And they're always gripping. We can never be mature enough, nor strong enough, nor independent enough to keep from feeling that grasp on certain days. It has no regard for where we are in life, and its hand will always seek to clench us. But despite the temptation of hopelessness coming at any time and in a myriad of forms, each and every appearance shares the same constant goal: disconnectedness.
Will I be forgotten by my dad? Maybe. Maybe not. Will it mean that I’m actually forgotten? Invisible? Alone? Disconnected? Never. The whole and true self of my dad is the life he has spent and continues to spend with us. Just because certain pieces of a person’s life are hard for him to formulate does not mean that he has neglected them, nor ceases to believe in their value anymore. The phenomena of memory and forgetfulness, like all things, are contingent upon a context. And no matter how real that context is in molding the person’s memory/forgetfulness, the object, other person, or event that the person’s conscious is engaging still remains as true as it was before he or she engaged it.
How does this abstract idea help? I’d simply and passionately suggest that just as hoplessness’ constant is disconnectedness, hope’s constant will always be God. This is my only consolation to make the reality of who I am practical. My contexts will always be in progress and in flux; God, on the other hand, will always be ready and established. So not only do I have an infallible conscious always remembering and seeing me, but that person, God, has engrafted me forever in his son. My whole and true self remains intact and defined in him.
So now I stand facing a giant in the eyes. And I kid you not, every single time I look this new reality in the face, I feel small and I shudder. And that's fine. Instead of running into a false reality where I imagine it away, distract myself with something else, or, with my weapon of apathy, “apathize” it out of my mind, in my child-sizedness I beg God to meet me, to stand beside me, and we stare down the giant together. It is from this place that I can happily merge the reality of being encapable to change anything, with feeling empowered knowing I will not be swallowed into that sea.
Coincidentally, a movie version of A Monster Calls is being made. Here is the trailer: