He was two blocks down and a street over when we found him. With dessert waiting on the table, we had fanned out to search the neighborhood. We weren’t sure how long he’d been gone. It was one of the children who mentioned his absence. It was not unusual after a Thanksgiving dinner for Chester to lie down on the couch and fall asleep. Since the Alzheimer’s had progressed, it was his regular habit to lie down after any meal, every meal, every day.
The disease wore on him. He was in a seemingly drowsy state all the time and his historically genial mood was scarred too often with a scowl I had not seen in all the years I had been married to his son. It took us by surprise still, even now, after the diagnosis years earlier, after the falls and the wanderings. It was hard to predict his mood and the hollow, confused look he wore broke my heart. It broke all of our hearts. When we found him he was sitting in the kitchen of a stranger, having a glass of water and a bit of conversation
. He was animated, almost energetic and though it was probably fueled by the fear and the confusion, it was good to see him the way he used to be. He had left the couch when we were all busy with conversation and dishes and parenting. He gave no reason for the wandering and we knew better than to ask. He had taken the walk, two blocks down and a street over and then made his way into the back yard of this stranger. Finding the back door unlocked he entered, feeling some sense of home or safety or simply in search of a good place to sit, have a rest and a drink of water.
The house belonged to a Chicago policeman and his family. The man told us it was a good thing it was daytime and that they were all in the kitchen. He might have shot Chester if circumstances were different
. In fact, though, he had seen immediately that confusion on Chester’s face, the weariness and the desperation of grasping for some word or memory just out of his reach. He recognized it and kept his gun holstered and we thanked God for that.
My youngest child, Miles, was born near the end of his grandfather’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Chester was living in a Veteran’s home by then, waiting out his last years, last months, still grasping for things just out of his memory ravaged by the disease, just out of his fuzzy peripheral vision, ravaged by the Macular degeneration, just out of earshot ravaged by hearing loss. The greatest loss to him, however, was his voice
. He told us this when he came to meet his youngest grandson and we asked him to sing the traditional family blessing. After his boisterous kindness, it was his booming singing voice people would most remember about Chester.
He’d break into song at the first opportunity. His singing was infectious and it shook the hearer down to the bone, reverberating through, beneath, bursting the heart, the skin, the soul. This was the loss, this was the emptiness, the confusion, the guidepost gone missing. Without song, none of us knew where to find him. Without song, he did not know where to find himself.
Before he moved to hospice care at home we went to see him at the Veteran’s home. He moved more slowly, spoke softly, looked out under hooded eyes but mustered energy when the children moved to embrace him. We sat in the common room, our young boys running around the men on couches and sitting in wheelchairs. The children were a sudden burst, the tornado in a sleepy town and the air was suddenly charged as though electricity flowed through everything.
He began quietly at first, humming. My husband picked up on the tune and added the words, “What a fellowship, what a joy divine
” and Chester finished the line, “leaning on the everlasting arms
” and with that forward motion, he continued, “what a blessedness, what a peace is mine, leaning on the everlasting arms,
” the tornado becoming flood as we all joined, shoring up the tune that Chester could no longer carry on his own. “Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms,
” the men in the room turning to add their voices to the familiar hymn, “leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms
” and the voices stopped a moment. And the quiet hung there before us, then—
we waited, afraid to break that beauty, afraid the loss would push its way back in, afraid of whatever would follow until finally, Chester began again, “What have I to dread, what have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms?”
and we let him carry it and we listened to his struggling and his resolve and let his lovely bass tremolo fill us all, "I have blessed peace with my Lord so near, leaning on the everlasting arms”
until at last we joined our voices again with his, joining the song, joining the chorus, all of us leaning, all of us leaning.
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