David Feherty: Holding Onto Humor in the Face of My Dad’s Alzheimer’s Battle
My father, Billy Feherty, passed away due to complications from Alzheimer's in 2016, at age 91. The last time I saw him, he didn't know who I was… and he didn't know who he was, either.
People deal with this awful disease very differently, and each journey is unique. I prefer to remember my dad as the amazing father and person that he was, rather than for what this disease eventually did to him.
Watching my mother take on the role as dad’s primary caregiver was incredibly difficult to do from a distance, my parents being based in Ireland, and me being based in the U.S. Now, because of the pandemic, I have not seen my mother in two years. That has compounded this long journey in a lot of ways.
I remember the last time I saw Dad. I couldn't even see my own reflection in his eyes. It was devastating, and it is still hard to talk about. I freely admit that I found it emotionally crippling just to be in the same room as him.
Alzheimer’s is such a horrifying disease, because you are missing the person when they are right in front of you. Some of the hardest moments were when my own memories of who Dad used to be faded, as if I was already mourning the person he was, and trying to accept the man who was now in front of me.
I know that many people feel guilty in moments like these, but I see guilt as a currency, a useless emotion used to pay for what we think we have done. With Alzheimer’s, the rules are different. All bets are off. Whenever your loved one is affected by a cruel disease like Alzheimer’s, it’s difficult to shake off that guilt of not being there, or the feeling that you aren’t of any use to the person you love. I didn’t want the last memories of the man I loved to be ones where he did not remember me, or himself.
So I held onto Dad's flashes of lucidity, and as the disease progressed, he would remind me of who he was in those moments. Those are the times that I choose to remember.
Keeping Your Sense of Humor While Facing Alzheimer’s
Everyone approaches Alzheimer’s disease in their own different ways. For me, humor was something that I clung to. I think it’s important for families impacted by this disease to try and retain their sense of humor, to remember who the person you love was, and how they would feel about how you feel about them.
My dad was always able to laugh at himself, and my mom also has a tremendous sense of humor. I often think of all the hysterically funny moments that happened during the latter part of Dad’s life that he would have appreciated, had he been more present. This included a moment he was the architect of.
Dad spent the last few years of his life in a care home in Ireland. We were lucky to find a place where the staff was absolutely amazing, from the level of care to the massive amount of compassion they had for my dad. But when we first moved him in, he didn't waste any time — he broke right out of there. Then, when he couldn't understand why he broke out, he broke back in! I only wish he had grasped the humor in that moment, because I know it was something that would have made him laugh.
But what sticks with me most is something that happened on Dad’s last visit to the U.S. It was one of those great times when he was very present, a moment of lucidity.
I had put a college basketball tournament game on TV, Villanova versus Gonzaga. Dad knew absolutely nothing about basketball. The game began, and both teams scored two points at the start. Dad turned to me and said: “Looks like this is going to be a close one.” I said, “No, Dad, that’s not the way it works. Lots of scoring goes on in this game.”
As luck would have it, with seconds left to play, the score was tied, 79-79. Dad looked at me, as if to say: “Oh, really?” When he got up to use the washroom — something someone in their mid-80s will often need to do — I said: “Don’t worry, Dad. I will pause it for you.” He turned around and quipped: “Well… what about everybody else?”
He was so deadpan, so endearing, so funny. It is one of my lasting memories, one of the last exchanges between us where Dad was just Dad.
Today, my dad is no longer confused. He is no longer in pain. Losing him was hell — losing him before he was actually gone. I want him to know that I miss him and that I loved him very much.