By John Perry
I am sitting in a hospital room in Harlingen, Texas, in 1998, sometime past midnight. Across the room our father sits in a straightjacket, with its long arms tied to his chair, and struggles to get out.
We found out that he had Alzheimer’s about two years before that. Along with my wife Frenchie, we converged on Harlingen after our mother had a stroke. At yearly family reunions, in San Antonio or in the Rockies, we had seen some loss of Dad’s characteristic mental acuity. But seeing him at home, without my mother to cover for him, it quickly became clear that things were much more serious than we had realized. He fed the dog many times a day, forgetting he had already done so. He was confused about where Mom was, and what had happened to her. When he watched my sister Susan cook an apple pie, he acted more as a boy helping his mother than a father supervising his daughter. He recognized us, but greeted us each morning, as if we had just arrived.
For the next two years, while we coped with my mother’s rehabilitation, second stroke, and death, and my brother’s death from cancer in Florida, we took turns flying to Harlingen from California to be with Dad. A wonderful woman, Mandy, took care of him at his home for the first year. Then we transferred him to the Alzheimer’s wing of a rest home. He thought he was back in Italy, where he had been stationed during World War II --- but now he was POW in a nice villa. He wasn’t particularly unhappy about it. The “Italian nurses and guards” treated him well, he thought. The food was good. Occasionally he and his friends would slip notes under the fence, hoping to be rescued when the Allies arrived. Once when Susan visited for dinner at the rest home, he took her hand upon leaving the dining room and said to her, "Well, honey, it's time to go, we must get across enemy lines before it gets dark. Cm'on my plane is just outside.”
He needed prostate surgery, and I flew down to be with him. Things didn’t go well after the surgery. Every so often he would discover his catheter, and, having no idea why it was there, pull it out, painful as that must have been. I stayed in his room to try to prevent this. It was a constant struggle. Eventually the nurses put him in the straightjacket. They said I could go home; the straightjacket would keep him from hurting himself until he fell asleep. But I wasn’t sure, so I stayed in the room. Dad did fall asleep, but then he woke up.
On a bombing run over Ploesti in 1944, our father’s B-24 lost two engines, and, after the bombs were jettisoned, the bomb bay doors wouldn’t close. The plane could not maintain altitude until one of the crew managed to pull them closed by hand, hanging out of the plane, held by his ankles. They could then maintain altitude, but not climb. At that altitude, by any of the routes on the map, they could not get through the mountains of the Balkans back to Italy. It fell to our father, the navigator, to figure out a new route. He made insightful conjectures about valleys and low ridges that might lie between the sources of rivers flowing east and rivers flowing west. And he figured out a route that worked, with only feet to spare. The plane limped back to Italy. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross --- a fact we didn’t learn from him, but only by finding the award stuck in a drawer.
Now I could see the same sort of determination at work. Waking up to find himself in a straightjacket, undeterred by my assurances that things were okay, Dad carefully, methodically, worked on getting out of it. Slowly, over about an hour, he managed to slide off the front of his chair, inch by inch. Then he worked the chair over his head and rotated it so his arms weren't crossed. Then he began to slowly ease himself out of the jacket. I watched, fascinated, but, knowing my father, not all that surprised. Before Dad could pull his catheter out once again, I went for the nurse, who was astounded.
Within the year Dad became bed-ridden, and returned to his home again, with Mandy in charge. It all seemed familiar to him, but he thought it was a replica of a place he had once lived, constructed for obscure reasons by the Italians, rather than his own home. About two years after my mother died, he died a somewhat painful but not protracted death.
There is a paradox with Alzheimer's. The father we knew would have been mortified at what he had become, and that made the situation painful for us. During the first phase, when he recognized what was happening, he was depressed and terrified. But in the next phase, he seemed to find life pretty pleasant. It was sad to see him so diminished. But, at the same time, we came to know him better in a funny sort of way. And we were certain that his deep traits stayed within a raw form, like his determination. He retained his charm and many of his social skills. A week or so after our mother's death, we had a reception for their friends. We saw our father greet and converse with people whom we realized he had little or no memory of. They didn’t catch on. He navigated the situation with appropriate but vague questions. Never "How's your wife" but simply, "How's your family?" "Do you remember that time we saw you in Minnesota?" one friend asked. "Of course, now when was that?" my father replied, having, we are sure, no idea whether it was a year ago or at a Summer Camp in 1925.
It was a difficult two and a half years, at the end of which my sister and I were all that was left of the thriving family of five we grew up with. It is difficult to contemplate the difficulties our situation would have posed if my parents had no money, and we had no time --- the difficulties most people would have had in our situation. As it was, although painful to witness, we both came away with a heightened understanding of our father's character. We heard many memories of World War II, a time that shaped who he was in important ways, but which earlier in our lives, he had never wanted to talk about. Alzheimer's is a sad malady to see someone struggle with, but it does present certain gateways into a person's soul. The memories Dad shared in this odd way left us a greater understanding and appreciation of why he was the person he was.
John’s sister Susan Perry helped write and edit this story.