The tears start somewhere between mile marker 47 and the Chesapeake exit. I've grown used to them, and I have learned to let them slip silently down my face as the big rigs and the pastures fly past my windows. I've done this for months.
My dad is dying.
Alzheimer's disease is an illness which steals the essence of the person you love. My dad was once a vibrant, healthy man who could do one-armed push-ups at age 70. He's 91 now, and his tiny wizened frame bears little resemblance to the undefeated Army boxer and charismatic musician he once was.
I'm blessed, in many respects. I had the chance to grow up with my dad, even though I was a late in life child. He has seen his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He will leave a wonderful legacy behind him. But this gradual disappearing act - which began with the occasional forgotten task and an endearing, seemingly benign senility - eventually culminated into the cruelty of dementia.
There isn't a timeframe, and there isn't a cure. The days that your loved one remembers your name are small gifts that could be snatched away again at any moment. Alzheimer's forces you to take life one day at a time. It is a river that carries you along, and you try to stay afloat in its vicious current. You learn to meet your loved one where it takes them.
Today, I held my dad's hand. I told him all of the things I needed to say, because with this disease, I don't know if this may be the last time I get the chance.
I told him how much I appreciated him leaving his car parked outside my kindergarten classroom that first day, and then walking home, so that I could look outside and see it. So I wouldn't be afraid. I told him how glad I was that he made me take piano - even after it was obvious that I preferred classical music over the country-western he wanted me to learn. I told him about the silly things he used to do for us kids, the way he would tirelessly carry us on his back, pretending to be a horse or a giant turtle.
When I see my daughter wrestling with my husband, or when I pick her up off the ground after she falls from her bike, I think to myself: "These are the things she'll remember. These are the things that make a child happy."
After I was finished, my dad raised my hand to his lips, and he kissed it.
He had never said a word. He didn't have to.