The Abyss of Forgetfulness: Learning From Alzheimer’s

By Ray Wiseman

I just can’t stop counting. Sixty-two days since we celebrated our fifty-ninth wedding anniversary. Four sons, one ‘adopted’ daughter, eight grandchildren, one great-granddaughter, thirteen local churches, and two intertwined career paths connecting with twenty-nine countries. 0028_qetcyp_fg

Ten years have passed since Anna’s memory loss became apparent. Seven years since receiving the diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s, thirty-some days since Anna entered the long-term care facility.

Now the trail of numbers has broken like a strand of pearls and scattered into a black hole of faded memories. Not just for Anna.

Now I too must find ways to crawl out of the abyss of forgetfulness.

My eyes tear up when I sit across from her empty place at the table, when I wish to tell her the latest news, and she isn’t here. When I visit her at the long-term care home, sharing still remains impossible because she really isn’t there either—she no longer remembers or cares and often doesn’t recognize me.

But then I’m not doing much better. My own memory has begun to flag. I return again and again to forgotten and unfinished tasks. I lose my keys or cell phone, often in the same places, but can’t remember to look there first. I call a doctor friend to tell him that Alzheimer’s is catching.

“Who said that?” he bellows.

Trying to add a touch of humour to a serious moment, I snap back, “I did. Weren’t you listening?”

The doctor insists that living under personal stress during recent years has caused my brain dysfunction. He asserts that caregivers often take on the symptoms of those for whom they care. It even happens to doctors and nurses.

I wonder if stress or loneliness causes some of my other strange behaviors. Often at bedtime or in the early morning, I sit on Anna’s empty empty bed at home and tell her about my day or my plans for the next day. Of course, I don’t expect her to hear me; I hope the Lord will break through the fog, spanning the space between us, and comfort her with the memories of days gone by—to simply communicate a feeling of my love and nearness to her. And then I pray that He will do just that.

Is she similarly praying for me?

Each time I wake from a nap in my chair, I cast around for her. A toilet flushes in another apartment, and I turn to our bathroom expecting Anna to emerge. A coat looses its tenuous grip on a hanger and falls; I turn to ask, Anna, did you drop something? But I suppress the words. When I head toward the kitchen table, I wonder why I am carrying two cereal bowls. A burst of frustration tempts me to smash the bowl against the wall, but I resist.

When I visit her in person, she flashes her trademark smile, and says, “Hello, I’m glad you came, but I was expecting Ray, my husband.”
My eyes moisten and I choke out the words, “I am Ray. I am your husband.”

As I write this, tears begin again. I have written enough. It’s time to sit on an empty bed and quietly talk to my missing wife.

Ray Wiseman’s column in Nov/Dec Faith Today shed a light on the beauty that can be found in living with Alzheimer’s. Subscribe today.

6 thoughts on “The Abyss of Forgetfulness: Learning From Alzheimer’s”

  1. Ray, your post is beautiful and gut-wrenching at the same time. How brilliantly you speak from your heart and share the hurt that pervades you moment by moment. I love that you still keep your sense of humour and just know that ever since I have known you and watched you over the years at the conferences and other places with Anna, I have been so moved by the dedication and love that poured out of your interactions. Regret not, my friend, your heart is with Anna, although her words may not match that truth. And just so you know losing keys is not a sign of Alzheimers – it’s forgetting how to drive that would be more to worry over! Bless you and stay strong in the Lord (for in Him you will find your strength alone – I know I am preaching to the choir on that one, but sometimes a reminder is a good thing!)

  2. “Why do we suffer?” is a natural question to ask when the one we love is gone. The Bible tells us original sin in the Garden of Eden provided a genetic basis for everything that goes wrong in life. It’s a neat, pat answer that brings no comfort. Hearing that “God is love” does not ease our emotional sorrow. Who can believe that at such a time?
    If the loss is a physical one, it usually resolves in time. But in Alzheimer’s disease, our beloved one remains with us physically—a constant challenge to find the real person behind the “apparition” before us. When my own mother had this disease she not only forgot who I was, she forgot God. This made me ask myself, “Who is this person really?” and “Will she ever see God in Heaven?” Eventually God’s love convinced me that a mental problem too great for a human mind to understand is not too great for God. She would be in Heaven—fully restored. But the question of ‘why suffer’ remained with me.
    The Bible tells us a lot about suffering. King David had plenty. In Psalm 23, verse 4, he talks about walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and finding God there with him. In the verse before he even suggests God led him there as he says, “He leads me …for his names sake.” In other words, since ‘name’ = ‘nature’ it is God’s will he should be in this valley. Does this mean God wants us to suffer? It was certainly the will of God that Jesus suffer for our sins. St. Paul tells us much later, “In all things God works for good to those who love Him.”
    So ponder this. Suffering exists because of sin in the world—not necessarily ours but someone’s. Jesus suffered to remove that suffering forever. But that takes time. Perhaps when we suffer through no fault of our own, just as David was asked to walk through the Valley of Death, we have been asked to share in Jesus’ suffering. Let us do that and do it “for His name’s sake.” If we do, our own suffering is much reduced. We accept a share of our Saviour’s pain and He takes it back. Our burden if still there, will be much lighter.

  3. “As I write this, tears begin again. ” As I read that, my own tears began. Painfully experienced; very well written. This reader’s heart aches with yours, Ray. The greater the love, the more devastating the sense of loss, but so very good to have shared for so long the love that now rips your heart and mind apart. I suspect that even in the midst of this nightmare, you do not regret having loved and been loved so deeply. May God comfort you and bring you both peace.

  4. I read your blog, Ray, and was deeply moved. Knowing you both for such a long time, I appreciate every word. When I play piano in the lunch room, I often see Anna sleeping. I like to think that she is at peace. When I talk to her, she smiles and I like to think I’ve contributed to her day. Maybe or maybe not. Thank you for writing this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *