When he was in his early eighties, my father taught me about the possible depths of his love. I knew my parents had a fine relationship but I never realized how much my father adored my mother. There was little hint of his admiration and passion in their visible every day relationship. Only after my mother sank into Alzheimer’s did my grief-worn father reveal his immeasurable love. Oh he didn’t talk about his feelings: he was, after all, a WWII veteran and a man raised to stoically endure for the sake of his family. But he showed me his devotion every day.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” he might say to me, as we sat with mom in the nursing home’s private dining room, sharing a lunch I’d brought in: my parent’s favorite broccoli soup, half a tuna fish sandwich and a brownie.
The first time he said this Mom wore a little fleck of mayonnaise-laden tuna on her cheek and a blob of greenish soup on her bib. Her hair was greasy—she’d been resistant to taking a bath. To me, she looked like an old crone from the fairy tales, the kind of dirty, mysterious witch who might whisper a cryptic piece of wisdom that would save your life but who certainly wouldn’t win a beauty contest. I couldn’t yet see what my father saw.
“Your mother looks so pretty in that sweater,” my father said a couple of weeks later. We were strolling the corridors of the memory care unit. Mom was shuffling along, holding each of our arms, her head bent. Her mother’s former wardrobe had gone the way of buttons and zippers and she now wore primarily sweats. I hadn’t really noticed her outfit but I stopped to look. Her pink sweatshirt echoed the blush of color in her cheeks. When she looked at me and smiled, she might have been wearing a rose chiffon evening gown: her face glowed.
“I’ve discovered a sure-fire way to make your mother smile,” my father said, when Mom was deep into the advanced stages. We were seated next to Mom’s bed, watching her twist her sheet. I scooted forward, eager for my father’s insights: my usual ways of making Mom smile were failing me and I felt bereft when she and I were unable to connect.
“Watch this,” he said and he leaned forward and gave Mom a series of light kisses on her cheek. She smiled, then she giggled and her beauty shone so strongly that I fully understood what my father had always known: beauty is there if you’re looking with your heart.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey. Visit her blog at DementiaJourney.org