When age-related dementia sets in, people often go either sweet or angry, depending on how they have lived. My dad was a very competitive guy—a trial attorney, inclined to live on the angry side. When he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I assumed my siblings and I were in for a hard time. To our delight he went sweet, I think because Mom was helping him from the other side.
Mom had died seven years earlier, after fifty-six years of marriage to Dad. He was devoted to her. When she had a sudden cardiac and respiratory failure, she was on life support for three days. Previously she had made her wishes clear: “When the quality of life is gone, when the doctors say there is no hope of recovery, please let me go.” Clearly that moment had come. Dad knew this was the right decision, but when we took her off life support he was devastated.
Mom must have known he wasn’t ready to let her go, so instead of dying as we all expected, she began to breathe on her own. She was conscious and aware of what was going on around her, but her brain had been oxygen deprived and she suffered from aphasia. Verbal communication was scrambled. Most of the time she couldn’t use words in a sensible way.
We took her home where she lived another seven months. My father surprised us all, becoming her tender, fulltime caregiver. Somehow they managed to communicate, and my father told me that often when she first woke up in the morning her expression was like that of a new-born baby.
“She was talking to angels,” my father said. “Of course I couldn’t see them, so I would ask her, ‘How many are there?’ She would point to each one as she counted.”
My mother was a devout Catholic. My father rarely went to church. His father had been a Congregational minister. “My dad was my main connection to God,” my father told me, on one of the rare occasions when we talked about it. “Now that he’s gone, I prefer to commune with God in Nature.”
I think my mother also connected my dad to God. Dad and I were with her when she peacefully breathed her last. A few minutes later, through our tears, we saw that her expression had changed to a beatific smile. Dad was ecstatic.
“I had asked her to give me a sign from the other side,” he told me, “to let me know she was okay.” Her smile, he felt, was that sign.
After her death he would still talk to her in the evenings, he said, and she would answer him. Later, when he had a terminal diagnosis himself and hospice was called in, and his Alzheimer’s got worse, he was surprisingly calm and peaceful.
My sister, however, was worried that Dad might not be at peace with God. She wanted us to talk to him about his relationship with Jesus and with God.
My father rarely talked about God, and I didn’t think he would welcome such a conversation now. My beliefs are different from my sister’s, but on this we agreed: We both wanted Dad to die peacefully, unafraid, with a conscious connection to the divine. I prayed for a way to talk to him about death and what happens afterwards. My mother provided the bridge.
“Have you been talking to Mom recently?” I asked him one evening. He seemed particularly peaceful, and I thought that must be the reason.
“Yes,” he said quietly.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“That it is not quite time for me to go,” he replied.
“Really?” I said, trying to hide my surprise. “Did she say anything else?”
“Yes. That when my time comes, she’ll help me.”
That settled the question for me and, fortunately, also for my sister.
“When it comes time for him to die,” I suggested to her, “Tell him to go into the light, to God, and also to Mom. She’ll take him where he needs to go.”
Not long after, with my sister and I by his side, Dad peacefully passed away.