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Facing Alzheimer’s without a Net

By freeatlast ~

As a child, I heard so many sermons, sang so many hymns about heaven, and although I would have never admitted it out loud, secretly I found the thought of streets of gold and endless praises to God dull, so I jazzed up heaven in my mind. I conjured place of endless chocolate ice cream; an amusement park with roller coasters and no lines; a place where I could ride my bike-- complete with banana seat and sissy bar--forever downhill. Despite the boring aspects, though, the idea of living forever without sickness or sadness was quite appealing, and as I became a devoutly Christian adult, trying to convince myself that singing endless praises to God would be AWESOME, the deep appeal of heaven still lay in the promise of happy immortality.

This denial of death is the root of most religions. As the only animals aware of our mortality, religion is the preferred coping mechanism for most of us, the way we deal (or fail to deal) with the fundamental tragedy of existence: we age; we hurt; we die; we are no more; the end. This denial also explains why religious people find atheists so threatening: How dare they challenge that lovely dream?

I find myself [...] facing my deepest fear, that of annihilation...It is simply a dream, though, a fantasy for those unable, unwilling to face the truth.

Having recently shed religion like a robe that is too tight and way too small, I find myself naked on this planet, facing my deepest fear, that of annihilation, facing it squarely as I gaze into the face of my father as he dies of Alzheimer’s disease.

Christianity tells me that although my dad is fading here on earth, I should not grieve or worry because Alzheimer’s is only temporary, the unfortunate result of someone’s actions long, long ago who took a bite of the wrong fruit. I can rejoice because even though he is bewildered now, and he forgets to put on his clothes, even though he cannot remember who I am and what he did five minutes ago, even though he is going to have to wear adult diapers soon, it’s OK because heaven awaits! What a lovely thought.

What a lovely lie.

The truth is my father is dying in increments of a cruel disease, and unless his heart gives out first, his future holds one indignity after another as his cognitive light dims. I can walk with him in the growing darkness and find joy in our moments together, but I cannot change the outcome, and I can no longer deny to myself that this outcome is final for him and for me too someday.

Earlier I said that our mortality, and our awareness of it, is the fundamental tragedy of human existence, but perhaps I should view it instead as the fundamental reality. Hamlet mused, “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,” so maybe I just need to adjust my thinking.

Indeed, if we all shifted our thinking, accepting that this one life is really all we have, perhaps we would learn to better care for ourselves, our planet, and each other, not to earn some “heaven” or escape some “hell,” but just because we are human, and we are in this together.