My father has Alzheimer’s. He’s in the middle stage of the disease. He still recognizes his wife and all six of his adult children. He has moments of complete clarity where he will hear a joke and immediately laugh at the punchline. He will see my mom in pain and go to offer her comfort.
But he has moments of profound lapses in memory too. He can no longer make his favorite breakfast of oatmeal that he’s prepared for himself for the last 30 years because he simply can’t recall how to make it. My mom will ask him for paper towels, and he will come back confused with a bucket of cleaning supplies that doesn’t contain any paper towels.
As of late, Dad has lost his ability to communicate.
My siblings and I recently came to the awful realization that we will never be able to have a conversation with our father again.
When he wants to add to a discussion, the light turns on behind his eyes, and you can see the thoughts come as he so desperately tries to convey them into words. But the words don’t come. They can’t come. His brain won’t allow them. But despite the overwhelming frustration of his suppressed speech, he will often shrug it off, shake his head, and even give us a little smile.
I recently read a piece to my parents that I wrote about my childhood. My dad was eager to share something about it but couldn’t express himself. After much guessing by my mom and me, Mom figured out the memory my piece had triggered for Dad. He wanted to recall the time he and I fought to bring the sport of lacrosse to the girls in my high school.
My dad introduced me to the landmark legislation that is Title IX. I did my research, got a petition going, and generated interest. My dad assisted me in preparing a budget, and in finding field space and coaching staff. We wrote letters to the athletic director and went to school board meetings. For one such meeting, I remember preparing a speech for what I wanted to say to the board. When the time came, I froze. I couldn’t find my words. So, my dad stepped in and passionately articulated why the girls in our school deserved a lacrosse team. He believed in the cause so much it was as if he was planning to play on the team himself.
I never did get my team. But it was my first glimpse into the importance of fighting for something you believed in.
Together, my Dad and I stood up. We saw an unfair situation and used our voices to try to make it right. We put the ball in motion for the school to get their girls’ team, which they eventually did. This story is one that my dad still remembers with pride.
Years later, my dad’s voice saved me again. This time, we were at my cousin’s college graduation. My large, Italian family and I as well as many of my cousin’s friends were out to dinner at a restaurant. I so badly wanted to say a few words to honor this very close cousin of mine. I tapped my glass with a fork. The crowd grew quiet as all eyes fell on me. Again, the words didn’t come. Instead, I turned to my dad and blurted out that he would like to share a few words. I put him right on the spot. Dad chuckled and reluctantly, he stood. He wholeheartedly took this opportunity I forced upon him to share some thoughtful and celebratory words. This story, even now, makes my dad laugh out loud.
Fast forward another few years. I am in my 20s, in the real world, working at one of my first serious jobs. I was presented with an opportunity to interview for a position within the organization, 80% of which would involve public speaking. It would be a promotion for me if I got it. Unsure of what to do, I went to my dad for advice.
He encouraged me to take it, said that I had to if I wanted to grow both in my career and as a person.
I considered all he told me and apprehensively accepted the job. Taking it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It was one of those life-changing, eye-opening, awe-inducing jobs that helped to shape who I am today. Through my presentations—to students, addicts, police officers, and inmates—I met remarkable individuals who brought intangible character traits like bravery, resiliency, and compassion to life.
I’ve been so focused on praying for a miracle, pleading with God to just clear Dad’s mind and make him well. I’ve found myself feeling stuck and helpless, wondering where He is and why this is happening to a man who has given so much of his life to helping others. And in all this desperation came something unexpected . . . appreciation. As I continue to watch my father struggle to speak, I can’t help but appreciate (even more so) how much his words have positively impacted my life. My heart is filled with so much sadness and pride.
While I am devastated I will no longer get to hear his worldly wisdom, I am so grateful to have heard it in the first place.
I now revel in taking every opportunity to stand up and say a few words (usually more than a few) on behalf of the birthday girl, the bride, the expectant mother, the retiree. Moving people through the spoken word is actually my jam now. I’ve changed so much—from a shy, hesitant girl into an outspoken, confident woman because of my father’s belief in me. His encouragement. His support. His guidance. But of all these gifts my dad has given me, the one I appreciate the most is how he fearlessly used his voice—whether it was for the greater good or to just bring a smile to the faces of those around him.
Even now, he refuses to give up. And once again, I find myself in awe of him, admiring his determination to share his thoughts and memories with those around him. With this horrific disease has come the incredible realization of the most beautiful gift my father has given me—the power to find and use my own voice.