My father passed away silently and peacefully. Death of any parent is one of the most difficult things to deal with and I am no exception. The reasons I chose to take up the pen and paper are two. My father was suffering from Alzheimer disease and being the closest to him with my mother, I have the first hand knowledge and experience of this illness which I felt is important to share as I still find many people either ignorant or poorly informed on the different dimensions of this unique form of illness. Secondly, many of my cousins, relatives, friends, well-wishers and particularly my mother wanted me to write on my father who has been so close to me spanning over decades.
My father came to attend the graduation ceremony for the conferral of my MBA degree from one of the leading business schools of the US. He always has been a person of boundless warmth, vigor and stamina. From the day he landed in US till the day he left for home, his infinite excitement on my limited achievement was telling. Starting from the suit he will wear on the graduation ceremony to the place he would like to take us for dinner on the graduation day, there was no end to his discussions and suggestions. He knew that this most probably was my terminal degree and hence this feeling of seeing the completion of a son's academic journey and being there to help me anchor the ship till it moves to the next voyage was making his emotion surge in volcanic proportions. I and my mother had a difficult time putting a lid on an exuberant father's hyperactive zeal to do "something more". Little did I know then that the next journey would see both the father and the son walk hand in hand in what would become as the late US President Ronald Reagan aptly said, "Journey to the sunset of life." Reagan was one of the most famous patients of Alzheimer disease.
With aging, everyone's memory is on gradual slide and people tend to forget things - my father was no exception. His senses were agile and alert and he was very much in full awareness and control of whatever was happening around him. The only noticeable change was his tendency to repeat things which again is nothing unusual to happen when someone is getting older. Before my parents came to the US, they were visiting one of our very close family friends who had set up an appointment for my father with a US Doctor who is a well respected expert on illness related to old age and aging process. The doctor advised us that there was a possibility that my father may be showing early symptoms of Alzheimer disease.
Alzeheimer is a slow degeneration of brain whereby people gradually lose their ability to learn, adopt, and reflect. It starts with forgetfulness and repetitiveness and gradually moves to a very advanced stage where people need help in everything from feeding and clothing to bathing and walking. In other words, it is a kind of de-learning process which is opposite to the learning process a child goes through as s/he grows up with time and starts asserting independence in his/her activities. The available medicine even in the most advanced country of the world can only slow down the process but a complete cure is yet to be found for Alzheimer. The debate in US on the stem cell research has lot to do with the expectation that such research may lead to the development of drugs which will hopefully someday provide a cure against illnesses like Alzheimer and Parkinson's disease.
For such patients, the first and foremost remedy is the constant attention, love, affection and most importantly patience from the family and loved ones. The degree of patience required is so much that there is a book on this illness titled "36 Hours a Day". For me and my mother at times it even sounded like 48 hours a day but God is kind and we persevered. When my father used to ask the same question repeatedly, at times it was difficult not to feel tired but then again one has to look at the helplessness at one's own childhood and the patience our parents had to put up to bring us up. Unless one makes the emotional connection, it is difficult to effectively perform such responsibilities. It is also important that one has sufficient room for personal relaxation to balance the exhaustion caused due to such demanding attention and care.
My father then at some point became little allergic towards crowding. The reason is that such patients can start getting anxious about their lapses being exposed to others with whom they have always held their head in high esteem. For example, my father always used to look forward to the congregation prayers where he went with me. He would prefer to be on his own and not let me extend any assistance. Also he would get jittery if there were too many people visiting us at home and at times we had to intervene to make him feel comfortable with the crowd. One should never try to isolate the person in fear of social embarrassment, rather making him part of the crowd gives him that sense of assurance that he needs so badly but can't express properly.
My father had set good examples on how to value, respect, and uphold friendship and also to stand up against injustice no matter in which form and in what manner they happened. For example, once our family and cousins were returning from a trip outside the capital. My father's car crossed the ferry earlier and moved ahead but our car was left behind in the ferry and there was this senior army officer who came and abused our chauffer just because our car was parked too close to his.
We managed to chase our father's car and informed him of what had happened during the ferry
crossing. He stood in the middle of the highway and stopped the car of the army officer who had to apologize for his misconduct. When he came to my father's office my father told him, "You have to apologize to my chauffer and not me" and so did the army officer.
I used to take out my father for dinners and teas as the US doctor had advised me that one of the best treatments for such patient is to give quality company. When we went out together, he loved talking about his work and life. One can hardly imagine to what extent the morale of such a person can be boosted just through patient listening and active interest coming from the loved ones. From his initiatives and work during his career to his going for retirement, these were lessons of life to be embedded forever in the mind of a son whose restless wings were set to embark into the flight to ambitions and dreams. During these outings, he always used to tell me, "I never accepted even a cup of tea from a subordinate and on questions of principles I never bowed to any pressure from anybody, no matter how mighty and powerful they may have been." I was amazed by his unquestioned honesty, integrity, courage, and conviction which I have come to value much in my life.
I took a challenge when I decided to take my father to perform pilgrimage which is quite a demanding exercise even for those who are physically and mentally fit. The circumstances were quite contrary to what would happen on the regular schedule of the daily life of a person mostly staying at home. My father managed it well although I was next to him all through. His physique was strong due to years of disciplined life that had regular exercise and a controlled diet. This to some extent helped offset the mental frailty. It is important that such patients are constantly given opportunities to have positive emotional experience. Compared to others, they need it more as it activates their mind and stimulates their responsiveness.
Among the things that can result in Alzheimer is the risk that one entails if there is any severe mental setback or shock to people at their old age. Sometimes such shocks can trigger a negative emotional upsurge which can be quite overwhelming for many, particularly if the person concerned is someone like my father who was very emotional with a strong sense of self-respect. The US doctor who treated my father helped us understand these complexities and for those whose parents are alive and embarking into elderly state, my humble advice is to be careful so that they are not exposed to anything that is emotionally distressing and hurtful as the resiliency of mind tends to weaken faster than that of the body.
The foremost thing one must have is an unconditional love strong and commitment to stand by parents when they need us most. My father's illness effected almost every decision I had to take starting from where should I start my career, from how long can I afford to take a trip abroad to how can I ensure that the medicines from US arrive in time -- it encompassed my horizon of thoughts and activities in a way only second to my mother. As the body of my father was slowly put into eternal rest, it signified the end of an era. It was an era that saw victory of life and love, it was an experience of father and son sailing together in the sea of storms and sunshine. In the end, it was a journey of a father and a son who treaded the path of uncertainty with the same commitment to each other.
The journey of a father and son can never be complete without each other. May God give peace to the one who moved ahead.