Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Father's Humanity

I want to write a little about my Dad, Roland Joseph Guerin.  He's been a wonderful father, raising four kids who have gone on to excel both at their professions and in raising their own families (if you count me, that is).  I couldn't have asked for a better father, and family life, growing up. He's taught me more than I could ever measure.  Truly, it was my Wonder Years.

Now, at 81, my father has Alzheimer's.  Oh, that same, great father is still there.  He's just buried beneath a world of memories, and a dearth of memories -- all scattered and confused, half-lost and half-found.  But he's there.

So I wanted to write about him because I learned a lot about Alzheimer's during my short holiday visit.  But I learned more than that.  I also learned something about humanity.
When I visited him in December, his memory had deteriorated somewhat from the last time I saw him (too long ago, at a year before).  With most of us, there was a wave and a vague acknowledgement that we were someone he knew who was visiting (usually, my brother Eliot and I were his brother Russell).  He had to ask repeatedly who we were, although he left the distinct impression that he knew we were family, or at least very close friends.  He was always happy to see us.

Each time he saw my sister -- his daughter -- Becky, there was more than a hint of memory of her.  Although it may have been more emotional memory, it was memory nonetheless... and strong, at that.  Each time, he would greet her by saying "Becky!  I haven't seen you in so long!!", and his eyes would well up with tears.  He was equally emotional when she would leave, tearing up, saying "I love you".  Once, upon saying goodbye to her, he took the opportunity to add "I love you all!".   

This strong reaction to Becky was at once sad and very happy.  It was a clear sign of memory, of love,  boiling to the surface.  Imagine how you would feel if you lived a life with someone, loved them, gave your whole life for them, and then lost them.  Imagine if you didn't even remember that they existed, as if a millenium had passed and you were embedded in some strange new world.  Then imagine you remembered, that you saw them, and it all came back in a rush.  While there is, I know, an intense sadness in that, there is also a wonderful sense of elation to be had.  It is something to be celebrated.  It is the prodigal daughter -- and father -- returned!  It is the flush of realization that they were never really gone in the first place.

Dad may not remember the things that most consider important.  He doesn't know how to properly bathe or care for himself.  He doesn't remember when to eat, or to change clothes, or how to read or write.  His body doesn't remember how to walk safely.  But he remembers the important things.  They are still there.  Life, and love, and family... if only in spurts, through self-surprising instantaneous revelations, and in quiet times sitting with loved ones.  And it seems like these are things he will never lose.

He also remembers how to be gracious.  Just as my mother died with grace, my father is living his waning years with grace.  On New Years Eve, he wanted to ensure that all of us who were visiting were included,  making sure that we all had food and a place to sit (using his limited vocal and intellectual capacity, and from  the confines of a wheelchair).  Ever the gracious host.  When I told him it was 2013, he said "Really!  I think I'll sit this one out!"  I hear ya, Dad!  He enjoyed the music at the party, asking me to take him up to the front, tapping in time with the piano player.  He even generously offered to me to come visit more often, opening the door to his home, saying "You could come in here, be a regular"... his "Cheers", his own private New Orleans neighborhood bar.  Would that I could more often, Dad.

Roland Guerin today usually lives as though he is still in high school, or recently graduated.  When he thinks I or my brother Eliot are our Uncle Russell, he congratulates us on getting married before him.  Russell often goes through his high school yearbook with him, and there are glimmers of memory of the people and places.    Roland is a state champion wrestler, valedictorian, and -- as he has recently told us -- "has plenty of girlfriends!"  It's not a bad life, and he is happy, at least.  This is more than most would dare to hope for in the autumn of their life.

When I told him I now lived in North Carolina, he asked what brought me there, deciding it "must've been a girl."  I said "No, it was a job." (and schools, etc, but no need to sweat the details)  He said -- in the Alzheimer's stammer of half-words (and the rest missing) that I was quickly learning to translate -- "You must've completed your higher education."  I said "Yes, I got my PhD."  Again, he welled up emotion, and there was that happiness-sadness of a long-lost memory surfacing.  He said with great pride "All the Guerins!", tearing up.  He was remembering that all his kids had finished college and gone to graduate school, 3 of us being "doctors" of one kind or another.  An instant later, he may not have remembered that he even had kids, much less what they did with their lives.  But he remembered the life, the results, and his love and pride.

What these brief, all-too-infrequent encounters taught me is this.  While we human beings fancy ourselves  creatures of great intellect -- intellect that is capable of feats both fearsome and awesome -- we are also creatures of great emotion.  This emotion is also capable of feats both fearsome and awesome.  Who is to say what's more valuable, intellectual memory or emotional  memory?  My father, who always had an abundance of the former (and worked his life to instill it in us) and seldom expressed the latter, is now left, ironically, a creature of almost pure emotion.  But it is good emotion, and it is a memory of his life:  accurate and telling, noble and pure.

One of the most touching things Dad ever told me was about three months after Hurricane Katrina.  Mom had died as an evacuee in Shreveport, and he had moved back about a month before Thanksgiving.  He was alone for the first time in more than 40 years, in a city -- his beloved city -- that was hanging by a thread.  My family and I went to New Orleans to cook and have Thanksgiving dinner with him.  Except for my mother, who re-kindled her Catholicism in her final years, we were a fairly secular household.  So Dad didn't say grace.  But before beginning the meal, he said "I'm not a particularly religious person.  But I wanted you all to know that what you are doing is very human."

Even today, from deep within a forest of blurred intellect and vibrant emotions, of amyloid plaques and tangles, my father is still teaching me what it is to be human.


  1. Wow! My words can't express the emotion and love you shared with your Dad and all of us who will read this tribute. Thank you! Sylvia Miles Guerin

  2. Thanks Sylvia. Oh, and Happy Birthday!

  3. I wish we weren't on opposite ends of the continent, John, as I'm sure I would call you a good friend, beyond being my cousin. But I'll enjoy your company through your writing. thanks.

  4. Wow! You're as good a writer as your Dad is a cool dude. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. John, my name is Pat Hemenway, and I am an Alzheimer's Association volunteer. I am also one of the administrators for Alzheimer's Association Louisiana Region FB page. First, thank you for liking our page. I hope that you will find it helpful. My mom died with Alzheimer's in 2006, so I can really identify with all you are going through at this time. Secondly, would you mind posting this entry from your blog on our FB page? I know how much it would mean to our folks. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for this, John. I'll be sharing this with many others.

  7. Thank you Pat (and everyone else). I thought I did post it on your ALZ La FB page, but when I looked, it was gone (although my FB still says i posted a link there). I'll try again.