Luc Gagnon is a psychoeducator at the Douglas Institute. In 2003, he learned that his father had Alzheimer's disease. He decided to keep a journal to record the few precious lucid moments that his father would still be able to share. Two years later, Luc gathered his writings under the title "Papa, mama, the maid and I," a collection filled with humour and tenderness. The series is being published during the Alzheimer Awareness Month and over the next few weeks.
September 2003 - At our house, we never had a maid to make life easier for us. But we did have plenty of laughter.
- Papa, remember Robert Lamoureux’s line “Papa, mama, the maid and I” in the movie of the same name? Wasn’t it you who got us started on that? We found it so funny. It even became our inside joke, remember? Whenever our little family set out somewhere, it was always “papa, mama, the maid and I."
You remember; I know you do.
Papa has Alzheimer’s. Or more precisely, Alzheimer’s has papa. Because that’s what Alzheimer’s does. It takes over. Like an unruly tenant, it gradually moves in and occupies the person that once was.
It started about two or three months ago, in the summer. My cousin was driving my father home after a party. Not far from our house, he could suddenly no longer remember the rest of the way home. A few days later, he forgot the name of his granddaughter Martine during a conversation about her. And yet he’s close to Martine. From that point onward, everyone had their own story to tell about his moments of forgetfulness, and each story resembled the next. Some, in fact, dated back to long before summer. But not one person used the “A” word; as far as I know, no one even considered it. Still, until he was examined by a doctor we remained concerned and puzzled. We’d say, “He’s slowing down—that’s to be expected at his age.” Wow, were we in denial. Little did we know we’d already taken our first step into the world of memory loss. And since then, papa has been our tour guide.
Last week, we lost our “guide” for the first time. Or rather, he lost us. In any case, it took us four hours to find him. He drove off to park the car after dropping mama off for an appointment downtown…just as he’s been doing for almost 60 years. Mama told him “Drive around the block and park, then come and join me.” Big mistake. He drove around the block alright, around and around, and his block became larger and larger: St-Joseph, Park Avenue, Mount Royal Avenue. He just kept making right-hand turns. It was as though a small glimmer of logic was flickering, but he only turned where there were stop lights. I’m convinced he was fighting the good fight throughout, battling hard against the demons overtaking him. But as he approached the end of Mount Royal Avenue, he saw the mountain rising up in front of him, and he panicked.
A few days after it was all over, I went into Sherlock Holmes mode to piece it all together, and what happened that afternoon I now know so well, I could have been a passenger in the car. When I started asking papa questions, I was able to reconstruct his route, not from his answers but rather from his reaction to each question. Anxiety was written all over his face at the mere mention of the mountain! Imagine this: he sees the mountain and Mount Royal Avenue rising before him and fears he’ll end up driving clear out of Montreal. So he quickly parks the car in the first spot he comes across, climbs out, and begins to retrace his steps, slowly and without conviction. He sees a phone booth and steers himself towards it as a drowning man would a lifebuoy; he searches the phone book for the number of my brother Bernard, dials…and gets the answering machine. More panic!
– Bernard? Bernard, are you there? It’s me, your father.
He leaves the phone booth and frantically searches for another lifebuoy. He sees a taxi and waves his arms to flag it down.
– Uh…take me to Bernard’s house…I mean…er…to Ville St-Laurent…you know, near the old church?
– Which church? The one near the college?
– Uh, yes, yes, I think so.
When they get to the church in question, papa has a vague sense of the area, but can’t figure out the way to Bernard’s house. He spots another phone booth and cries out, “Here! Let me out here!” This time, thankfully, someone answers the phone. A welcome and familiar voice says “Grandpa?” This time, he doesn’t hesitate for a second. “Martine!” Guardian angel Martine.
Martine, his twenty-something saviour. And she’s ready for him; Bernard has briefed her on his forgetfulness. She reassures my father, tells him to stay where he is, and asks him to describe his surroundings. Keeping him on the phone, she reaches Bernard and me on her cell phone. With my heart in my throat, I listen as she finds just the right words to reassure her grandpa, over and over and over. Martine is my hero.
We found papa, his eyes moist and bottom lip trembling, his hangdog expression enough to break your heart.
Locating his car was complicated, but nothing compared to what we’d just been through. When it was all over, mama said, “The moment I got out of the car, I had a feeling he was going to get lost.” Since then, she hasn’t let him out of her sight. Nor has he let her out of his.
Now, whenever I see him, he pulls out his wallet and extracts the card that I gave him following the incident. On the card are written all of our phone numbers. Each time he flashes it in front of me, he gives me a smile that’s no longer entirely his own. And each time, his words cut me to the quick: “You’re the one who gave me this, right? Good idea.