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Mary McLaughlin Headshot

Zen and the Art of Alzheimer's

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I sat across the room from my father on Thanksgiving night. He looked at me pointedly. "What's your name?" he asked.

"I'm Mary," I answered.

"Mary... " he prompted.

"Mary McLaughlin," I said, wondering if he would recognize that my last name was the same as his.

"Mary McLaughlin," he repeated slowly. He listened to the syllables as they floated in the air. Then he shook his head. No, it didn't ring a bell.

My father, a few months shy of his 91st birthday, has advanced Alzheimer's disease. Though he still has good days, he has forgotten most of the things that just a few years ago he would have listed as evidence of a life well-lived -- his three college degrees; his two successful careers; his five grown children; his 57-year-and-counting marriage to my mother. They -- we -- are all shadows now. Glimpses. Points of information that he finds fascinating and puzzling, but that evaporate almost as soon as they are spoken to him.

It's all lost.

I've played that Thanksgiving night conversation through in my head a hundred times since it happened and it stings every time I do. And then, with each replay, I continue through to the second part of our conversation until I get to the part that salves the sting.

"Well," he said warmly. "Welcome. I'm glad you're here."

"Thank you," I smiled back. "I'm glad to be here."

"I hope you'll come back," he said.

"I will," I promised.

I imagine that, had I left the room at that point and returned a moment later, we would have had the same conversation again, and I would have had to introduce myself once more to the man who raised me.

I'm headed to my parents' house for an extended visit at Christmas and I'm preparing myself for the reality that I will be a stranger to him every time I enter the room. My strategy is a simple one, lifted straight from 1971. Be here now.

I'm reminding myself that my father's past is gone to him and it's not helpful or comforting to him when I try to recreate it. "No, Dad. Remember this? See? Look. Remember?"

I'm also reminding myself that it's not helpful or comforting to me to look at my father and see only what has been lost. "No, Dad, remember this? No, Dad. No, Dad. No, Dad."

So, this Christmas will be a Christmas of "yes," as I engage with my father on his own terms, moment by moment, each one a new opportunity for discovery, engagement and connection. "Yes, it's nice to meet you. Yes, I'd love to have to seat. Yes, I think we may have been neighbors quite a long time ago. Yes, it certainly is cold outside. Yes, it's nice to meet you. Yes. Yes. Yes."

I expect to introduce myself repeatedly to my father this Christmas. I only hope that each time I do, he finds that he is pleased to meet me.

And if he isn't, we have another chance -- another opportunity -- another moment. Right here. Right now.

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