Early Signs

Photo: Norma Sessions

To most people, Dale seemed just the same: talkative, smart, friendly, warm, funny.

The first signs of the disease were subtle.

I remember being at a reception for a clergy friend of ours. Dale’s diagnosis was very new, and only those closest to us knew. A long-time friend greeted him and asked, “How are you, Dale?” He replied, “Well, I’ve got Alzheimer’s disease.” Knowing that Dale had always enjoyed teasing, the person laughed a little and said, “No you don’t. You’re joking.” Dale continued, “No, it’s true. I was just diagnosed at Emory. I’ve got Alzheimer’s disease.” The person was shocked.

That response became common as Dale shared the news with others. Even after we had moved into a retirement community and Dale had undergone brain surgery as part of a clinical trial, many seemed doubtful that someone with Alzheimer’s disease could acknowledge it and look as good as he did. “He seems fine to me!” is something I heard more than once.

I struggled with my response to these comments because to me, each disease-related change was jarring and heartbreaking, no matter how small. Dale-with-the-excellent-memory, the one who could always win at Trivial Pursuits: had already lost understanding of our finances; was having difficulty organizing his sermons; was forgetting whole conversations; was getting lost in his hometown.

For me, the early unfolding of the disease was…

… like listening to an orchestra play a favorite piece while musicians begin putting their instruments down one by one…


…like noticing the first blush of red on a leaf as summer draws to a close…

I longed for the melodies I no longer could hear, for the full sound of the whole orchestra. I dreaded the winter cold that was coming our way. The loneliness and grief of the journey had begun.

During this time, I came across a quote by Julian of Norwich:

“If there be anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe,
I know nothing of it,
for it was not shown to me.
But this was shown: that in falling and rising again
we are always kept in that same precious love.”

Surely, we have fallen and risen over the years of this journey. And just as surely, that same precious love, manifested and expressed in countless ways, has kept us both. The grieving is ongoing. So is the gratitude for the love that keeps us.