The Gift of Honesty

Written September 26, 2011

Recently I was given the opportunity to witness a tremendous gift of loving honesty. It happened unexpectedly at a family weekend when my husband’s family was together at our home for the happy occasion of seeing Grandma and Grandpa who were visiting from Tucson.  We were going about the typical family business of chatting and eating. Lunch cleanup had begun and napping as the next agenda item was being discussed. The kids, all teenagers and older now, were planning the teams for a game of soccer when the heat subsided later in the day.

And then Dad called our attention to him, asking if it would be alright if he shared some thoughts with all of us. He moved to a tall chair and called Mom to the empty chair beside him. And so the group of us, all 25, gradually quieted down and gathered around them. His topic was Alzheimer’s, specifically, their personal experience with Alzheimer’s.

He said that he knew that the family was so spread out geographically and so much time passed between visits that we probably didn’t have a good idea of what it was like to have this disease or to care for someone with it. He worried mostly about the grandkids who no doubt could notice some changes in Grandma from their last visit with her, but didn’t really know how she was doing. He assumed that many of them wanted to ask, but didn’t know if they should and that they were most likely worried about them both. And so he wanted to fill them in on their lives in order to have it out in the open and understood.

The uneasiness in the room was palpable. It’s not very often that we talk openly about someone’s disease process in their presence. And there was Mom, looking at Dad expectantly, eagerly waiting to hear what he was going to share about her. He assured us that he had received her consent to do this, but still we were a little apprehensive, wondering if this really was ‘appropriate’.

And then he began. He told us of their daily routines and how those have to shift over time with each change and bit of loss. He informed us of the outings he does and doesn’t do these days as well as what Mom still likes to do and what she no longer cares about or can do. We learned the names of the people they call friends and how they help. He shared the humorous things she has said in certain situations and when he chuckled and Mom giggled, we knew we had permission to laugh along, melting away the nervousness we had initially felt. He gently exposed the sadness he feels in watching his wife lose parts of herself. And when he took her hand and shared how Mom’s sweet nature has been revealed to her core, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

When he was done, he asked if anyone wanted to ask any questions or share any of their own insights. And some of us did, sharing and asking things we probably would never have dared to talk about with everyone, but grateful for the chance to do so.

And then he turned to Mom and asked her if she wanted to say anything. At first she shrugged and looked to Dad for words as she often does these days, but he coaxed her on, telling her she could say whatever she was thinking. She thought for a minute and then spoke. Her voice is quiet and so we all leaned in and held our collective breath to hear her slowly say, “Well, I guess I’m just here to tell you that it’s not that bad, this Alzheimer’s, and I’m OK.”

I believe our connection as a family grew a little stronger after that time together. Open, honest sharing is a pretty powerful bond particularly when offered by two beloved elders discussing the heartaches and small joys of one of the most dramatic transitions of their life together. I am so grateful for their courage and willingness to bring us along on their journey.

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Regina Leffers McCaleb, Ph.D.

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