"It's a degenerate disease. There is no cure. The prognosis is three years."
These were the doctor's words that stood out to my mother, Sybil, and her then-husband Z when they were led into a back room. For the first time ever, my mother saw Z break down into tears.
Before then, Z was larger than life, a veteran, professor, and psychologist who stood at an impressive 6"6, weighed 250 pounds, and wore a size 14 shoe. My mother stood at a mere 5"1 and her hands were two times smaller than his. After two failed marriages and one jilting at the altar, my mother finally met her prince charming, or a gentle giant, if you will.
On their first-year wedding anniversary, June 25th, 2006, Z gave my mother a two-prong vase with one gold-plated red rose. She loved the rose but she did not understand why he gave her a two-prong vase when it was only their first anniversary. On the second year, Z gave her a blue rose. There were no more gifts after that. Our lives changed forever after that one fateful doctor's visit.
Diagnosis: Degenerative Frontal Temporal Lobe Dementia (May 2008)
He was only 58 years old.
Naturally, as the years progress, we expect health issues to arise, but not this. His previous health issues had been in remission for thirty years. Not our Z. He was too smart to have his brain shrink. He taught at conferences around the world, received hypnosis certificates from Harvard, recited Shakespeare at the dinner table, and entertained me with stories about Napoleon Bonaparte's life whenever the lights went out at the house.
From February to May of 2008, I noticed that Z was not going to work and thought that maybe he was taking a sabbatical. My parents were going to a lot of doctors' visits but I assumed that they were going out on dates because Z loved to spoil my mom. But then more strange things began to happen. He would go to a supermarket, leave the groceries at the counter, and come home only with the receipt in his hands. At night, Z would pace around the house multiple times, obsessively checking all the lights and doors. Things that belonged in the refrigerator were placed in the pantry. His Listerine and aftershave were both green liquids in clear bottles. One day, he was washing his mouth with the aftershave by mistake.
The doctors warned my mom to put him in a nursing home because there was no way that she could take care of him. But she didn't listen. She went back to school to become a caretaker, installed ramps around the house, and moved their bedroom downstairs when Z's vision failed. She still took him to his doctors' visits but now he had to sit in the backseat for he feared that the opposite oncoming traffic was actually coming towards their car to hit it head-on.
Despite the anxiety, the forgetfulness, and failing eyesight, he still remembered both of our names. There would be days where it would seem like he was his former self and days when he was only a shadow of it, but he always called my mother "sweetheart," always was concerned about how I was doing in school, and told us that he loved us.
And we loved him too and carried that love wherever we went. I wrote my admissions essay for Princeton about Z and got in. When I ran into his bedroom, which was made up like a hospital room, he said, clear as day, "I'm not surprised." The school was right in New Jersey and the administration was empathetic to my family's extraordinary situation. I could go back home and visit whenever I wanted.
My mom worked around the clock for him. She barely went to church, let alone go out at all except for groceries and doctors' visits. She gained 100 pounds from the stress but did not take care of herself. Instead, she focused her energy on being by his side and sleeping on a cot just to be close to him.
Even though the doctors gave him only three weeks to live in 2010, Z lasted an astounding two more years and my mother was told that it was because of the love. We sang, danced, prayed, ate, watched American Idol, and laughed by his side. Even if Z didn't know what was going on, we still made him feel as if he was a human being who deserved attention just like anyone else.
Throughout the entire marriage, Z said that if anything happens to him, go to the Veteran's Affairs and my mother never asked why. He always reminded her at odd times so she didn't think much of it. When Z was on hospice, the reminder became more persistent and that's when my mom began to work on his case.
Suddenly, one day in 2012, Z looked up at the ceiling, raised his arms, and smiled. He hadn't raised his arms in two years. My mother and her father, who is a Bishop, thought that his time was coming. "The angels are coming to get 'em," My grandfather said with a smile.
When Z was in the hospital during his final days, he smiled at my mother and me even while he was semi-unconscious.
On April 20th, 2012 at 6:00 a.m., after my mom took a shower in Z's hospital room, my mother whispered in Z's ear that everything was taken care of. Fifty minutes later, he passed away. It was just my mother and Z, together until the end.
After he died, my mother donated his brain to Harvard University's Center for Brain Science. Weeks later, the result was that Z died from Alzheimer's and other military-related illnesses, not Frontal Temporal Lobe Dementia.
For a while, my mother and I suffered from grief. She would spend days in bed with the curtains closed. I suffered from insomnia and a mild form of OCD. But we recovered. My mother lost 87 pounds and went back to work. I graduated from school without any loans, which would not have been possible if it weren't Z.
To this day, we don't know why it happened to him. We don't know why this illness happens to anyone that we love. But sometimes, the quality of time is more important than its quantity. We spent precious time with a special man whose presence still reverberates throughout our entire lives every day. Despite all the sleepless nights, harsh admonishments from doctors, and tearful prayers, we knew that love prevails and persists. That emotion is not contingent upon someone's actual presence.
For Better, For Worse
For Richer, For Poorer
In Sickness and In Health...
Love inspired my parents to say those vows. Love tested them when sickness threatened to take them apart. And it was love that kept us strong even as we go on with our own lives...and so will it do for you.