A year ago today was the last time I heard my husband say my name coherently. It was a year ago I sat with him and wondered how much longer I could go on. I thought about him struggling to speak, shuffling as he walked, wearing a catheter and briefs, starting to have trouble feeding himself, and selfishly, I was worried about finances and impacts on me and the kids and wondered how long it would be before Alzheimer’s Disease eventually took him. I figured I still had lots of time.
I found out the heartbreaking answer just a few days later when I got the call he was “actively passing”.
I have learned so much in the past year. I have learned about friendships. I have learned about empathy and kindness and I have also learned about selflessness and selfishness. I have learned about the kind of loss you think you understand until you actually live it. I have felt an emptiness inside of me that I didn’t know could exist or was possible. I felt a perpetual sadness that there is nothing in this world to compare to or which can lighten. The only relief is sleep, but then you wake up.
Guilt is so ingrained in me I can’t remember a time it wasn’t part of my being. I have felt helpless as I watched my kids mourn their father. I have buried my husband and yet I still cry for him, long for him, ache for him and miss him. Terribly. I thought I had cried as much as possible before he died. I was wrong. My eyes now have dark eyelids and seem to be constantly swollen.
Yes, a year ago I was struggling to be a caregiver and a mother and somehow keep myself sane. Now I am struggling to recall all of the memories I am terrified of losing and a few I should probably forget. And now I face the challenge of a future alone, without Jim and starting all over. It is like being fresh out of college and trying to decide a path that will best lead me forward to whatever my future holds. My passion is Alzheimer’s Advocacy and education. That is what I do best and I what I want to do. It just doesn’t pay all the bills.
I look at photos and watch videos. I see our love and our excitement together. I see our hopefulness in a future laid out before us. I see Jim as the disease progresses and it all triggers the same feelings that crept in each time he showed how much he was changing. So I stop looking and I stop watching. Then I start to feel a void. A new guilt. Trying to move on. Trying to stop the pain and misery. And I go back to the darkness. There are good moments. The kids and some friends have made sure of this. But there is always that nagging feeling that something just isn’t as it is supposed to be. Something always seems to be missing….
And yet, we were lucky. Most Alzheimer’s patients aren’t able to communicate so late in the game. They usually can’t remember the loved ones who visit or care for them. A year ago Jim said my name. He knew his name. He still wanted to watch the kids play ball (another regret which equals guilt: not taking him because I was worried about the cold….if I had only known) and he could still hug me and tell me he loved me. He loved me. To have had someone intimately know you and still love you with the intensity and the depth that man did me is something you just don’t get over.
It is rare, it is special and I cannot express my sorrow for no longer having that kind of support and unwavering adoration. It only comes along once in a lifetime and there have been moments I wonder what I have to look forward to. It seems it will all be a wash from here on out. Yes, we were so lucky in so many ways. The support from our community. The friends who rallied round. The strength we gave each other. But here I am a year later and I am just as lost as I was on that fateful day I got that dreaded call.
I have the kids to watch grow and to parent and to comfort along the way. But what am I supposed to say as they watch their friends interact with their dads and my children don’t have one? They had a great one and he wanted nothing more than to live long enough to be there for their childhoods and young adult lives. That was the one thing that would make him tear up and cry. Losing his children. Them losing him. Jim was such an amazing man and even better father, it is such a loss for them on so many, many levels. I can only fill in so much. He was so handy and smart and funny and witty and dropped everything to do something with them. They are sadly missing out.
I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t keep him from falling victim to this terrible death. I know it wasn’t my fault, but as anyone who has cared for and loved someone who has lost a battle to a disease they fought against with all their being, there is guilt which never strays far away. And there is guilt for not knowing what was just around the corner. And guilt for losing patience. And guilt for not fulfilling bucket lists and guilt for worrying about the wrong things and not having the right conversation at the right time and not being ready and not knowing that the very conversation you are recording and taking for granted would be the last. For falling asleep when you should have been awake, even if it was 4 am. For letting go but wanting deep down inside to hold on forever. Being in a hurry to get home to fix dinner, or do the laundry or relax….there is plenty of time later.
But then you don’t really feel like it and there are few dinners that are made and even fewer that taste good. There is no more relaxing and now you only do laundry for three. And you only cook for three. You only travel as three and only need three tickets for a show. And you now have all the “guy” chores to do and the last thing you ever feel like doing is getting out of bed and doing any of it. When you finally decide you want to do something, either the kids have plans with friends or your friends have plans with their husbands. I haven’t braved a movie solo or dinner alone.
It will happen, I just haven’t yet. I will. I know I will. I have to. One day soon. It is my life. My new normal. I can go hiking by myself and travel unescorted and do whatever I want to do, just sans a partner. It takes some getting used to and I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it yet. But I will.
Listen: The book anyone grieving needs to read: Option B by Sheryl Sandberg. Post continues...
Mourning is a process. A long, slow process. No matter how much you want to get over it, how much time you had to prepare, how ready you thought you would be….the heart and mind aren’t always simpatico and they both run at their own leisure.
A year ago I could go visit Jim. And bring his laundry home to wash. And the kids could come with me and see him, talk to him, tell him about their day and what they were doing. They could play catch with him or sit outside in the rocking chairs. We could see his smile and know he was still with us. Even if it wasn’t the life he wanted. Even if is wasn’t quite the same Jim. And then I know I am so very selfish for wishing another day with him. I really don’t want that because he didn’t.
I want the old Jim. Before the disease. The one I fell in love with. But the sick Jim, the one who left me once and for all, he taught me more than anyone ever has. He taught me grace and acceptance and tenacity and patience and the real meaning of love. He showed me each and every day. I am forever a changed woman and forever grateful.
So now I am alone with the kids and no longer have the worry of his care. Or what is coming around the bend. Or what his wishes might be. Or when will it all be over. It is never over. Alzheimer’s takes them, but leaves us with the loss and pain that sticks around for a long, long time.
This post originally appeared on Missing Jim and was republished here with full permission.
Karen Garner is a mum-of-two whose husband, Jim, was diagnosed with Early (Younger) Onset Alzheimer’s Disease in 2011. He died on April 2, 2016, aged 53. She writes about caring for him, and life after him, at Missing Jim. She also founded The Garner Foundation, which seeks to provide support and resources for caregivers of Alzheimer's and Dementia patients in the US. You can find more about the wonderful work she does here.