Lately, my dad has been talking a lot about heaven.
He talks about it all the time, repeating the word again and again. That’s not entirely unusual: My father has Alzheimer’s disease, and repetition is a staple of his conversations. Still, his single-minded focus is impressive.
When he rises out of his Lazy Boy and heads for the door, I ask where he’s going.
When he wanders out of line at the baseball stadium, my husband wonders where he’s headed.
When he arrives at our home for Easter dinner, looking utterly astounded to find me there, he opens his arms wide and grins from ear to ear.
“I’m in heaven!”
It’s not just a figure of speech. It’s the focus of his life.
My father has always been a man of faith. When he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s eight years ago, he was also a man of keen intellect. But he was forgetting to pay bills, getting lost behind the wheel, and acting depressed. The test results showed signs of Alzheimer’s, a progressive, degenerative disease caused by plaques and tangles in the brain.
Today the man who once recited Joyce Kilmer poems from memory, spoke conversational Latin, and testified before Congress on behalf of the disabled is disabled himself. He can no longer make sense of what he reads or get dressed without help. He gets lost in his own home.
The man who coached me in every sport I ever played, attended every theatrical performance I ever gave, and praised every article I ever wrote now calls me his “friend Colleen” because he has forgotten the word “daughter.”
Someday soon, he may forget me.
And yet he has joy. Immense, contagious joy. It’s noticed by everyone he meets—from the aides at his adult day-care center, who marvel at his compassion for the other dementia patients, to the nephews who once considered him their hero, and still do. My father is forever laughing and singing, smiling and comforting. After meeting him recently, a friend said to me, “He brings so much joy. How can he have so much joy?”
Joy amid suffering is one of the great mysteries of life. And it’s one of the great themes of the Catholic Faith that my father passed on to me: that our sufferings, if accepted with patience and love, can sanctify us. They can make us more pure, more holy, more joyful than we would be without them. They can become a gift that we offer back to God. And God can use that gift to draw us—and, through us, other people—closer to Himself, closer to heaven.
I believe it because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen my father light up a room laden with grief—as he did recently when my uncle died. My father’s warmth and innocence consoled his sister and her children. He sang for them, told them Uncle George was in heaven, and reminded them, “We’re all in God’s hands.” His insights were mingled with otherwise nonsensical stories and garbled thoughts. But that’s the mystery, and the beauty, of who he is now: a man whose wisdom is disguised by dementia, a man who can lift our spirits as he loses his mind.
When some people see the ravages of a fatal disease like Alzheimer’s, they see only senseless suffering. They may even believe that “mercy killing” could put someone like my father “out of his misery.” After all, they say, he has already lost his dignity.
But my father still has his dignity. I see this more clearly now than ever, because he has so little else left. I see that his dignity is not a byproduct of his intelligence or his achievements. It never was.
It’s an everlasting and irrevocable gift from God. So is the life of his soul.
Despite all of his confusion and loss, my father still knows this. Sometimes I think it’s all he knows. That’s all right. It’s all he needs to know now. And I’m grateful that he tells us about it—in whatever way he can, whenever it crosses his mind.