Photo: Norma Sessions

“See? I remember that house! We were just here!”

We were on our way to spend time with friends at the beach and hadn’t been on this road in years. Dale sat in the passenger seat, pointing to houses, stores, even parked cars, repeatedly telling me that we had just seen each one.

Nothing like this had happened before in our short journey with Alzheimer’s disease. I had never even heard of such a thing, and it seemed especially strange this early in the process.

Over time these episodes became common and eventually were the norm. Almost everything new—people, places, things—became familiar to Dale and were woven into an ever-changing version of his past and ours.

As unsettling as they were to me, these recollections were clearly helpful for Dale. He would express great delight at having “just remembered” something, even telling his neurologist at Emory that his long-term memory was much better than mine. The new memories brought him happiness and a sense of fulfillment.

I learned to nod and respond positively to Dale’s memories. However, I was slow to join him in his happiness. It felt like our intertwined lives were being torn apart and taken in different directions.

In my mind’s eye, I could see the disease separating not only once-connected cells in the brain, but also much that had knit us together as a couple over the years. Our shared history—created together over decades of living and working together—was unraveling, disappearing.  

That which was a gift for Dale was a thief to me. 

How to reconcile these? Perhaps there is no way. They stand side by side in contrasting tones like so much on this journey: gratitude alongside grief, presence next to absence, moments of joy within the sorrow of decline. And I stand inside each paradox, mourning the losses…railing at the thief when I need to…and celebrating with gratitude the gifts where I can.