By Marjorie L. McLellan
Reprinted from the TellHisotry Blog
Let me tell you about my father.
David Stanley McLellan—“Red” to my mom and old friends—is a retired professor. He lives with my mom in a 1960s brick ranch house here in Yellow Springs. We moved to town last year in order to spend more time with my parents. Dad is eighty-three, legally blind and deaf and living with Alzheimer’s. The disease, in his case, has been a gradual process of diminished capacity and yet there was so much capacity to begin with that, even today, I often think I don’t reach the depths of his perceptions. He also suffers from visual hallucinations, has diminished mobility, and becomes confused. This is all exacerbated by his vision and hearing problems—its hard for me to know where one disability ends and another begins. The satisfactions that dad continues to find are a testimonial to the written word, family, and stories.
Although he has macular degeneration, dad can see a bit. Before the Alzheimer’s, he learned to read with a hand-held scanner and he still reads one word at a time on a large television screen. He is driven to read and yet frustrated by the difficulties he has seeing, focusing, understanding, and retaining what he reads. He thinks a lot—recently his thoughts have turned to how to make sense of religious conflict in the world and that has turned him to reading about the history of the Bible. We are not a particularly religious family but dad’s childhood was infused by the deep faith of his Scottish immigrant mother, Jessie McLellan.
After a distinguished career in which he wrote many books, dad tells us that family is the great joy of his life. My husband and I and our daughter joined my brother and his daughter living here in Yellow Springs. My sisters, my brother-in-law, and our son spend a lot of time here as well.
Dad will often sit quietly with his lips moving. He has taken to recalling major events in his life and then naming all the people and places associated with the particular time in his life. He has lived a fascinating rich life so he has a lot to think back on. Iconic stories emerge from this process – seeing my mom from a distance and knowing that he would marry her, delivering a telegram to Eleanor Roosevelt on a train, meeting General Eisenhower in a library in the South Pacific during WWII. He tells the stories over and over again. The stories are his bridge both to his past and to the people around him. I love hearing these stories both for the content and the connection with my dad.
Red was a navigator and bombardier in the Pacific towards the end of WWII. After the Japanese surrender, they were tasked with flying supplies to starving prisoners in northern Korea. He charted the flight and found that they could fly over Shanghai on the way north and over Hiroshima on the return. As they flew over Shanghai, he recalls, the sky was filled with kites in celebration of the wars’ end. When they reached their destination, one of the big canisters of supplies would not dislodge from the bomb bay. A bit like the scene with Slim Pickens in “Dr. Strangelove,” Red had to climb out over, holding on to the straps, and kick the canister loose. The return flight was far more somber and sobering, as they passed over the destruction wrought by the atomic bomb.
Although I didn’t hear this story until recent years, it seems to set the stage for his career as a scholar of American international relations in the Cold War.
I don’t want to paint a rosy picture of life with Alzheimer’s. It is hard. My dad grieves over the loss of capacity, worries, and fears what is to come. My mother lives with the daily challenges—life is a round of anxieties, chores, doctors’ visits—tinged with sorrow. Somehow she carries on and takes some satisfaction in caring, not just for my dad, but also for all of us. She is the one who listens to all of our stories.
“Memory Bridge” is a PBS website and documentary which resonated with my own experience of my father’s Alzheimer’s. Please take a look at http://www.memorybridge.org/index.php