I find myself enjoying this increasing emotional openness that seems to be part of my Alzheimer disease.
Saturday night, Marja and I went to the Kennedy Center to see a play presented by a Finnish troupe in Finnish (with subtitles) as part of a month-long Nordic Festival. Marja is from Finland and the long periods of time our family has spent there have given me a real sense of connection to the place and to the culture. The setting of the drama is under a bridge somewhere in Finland where a number of homeless people are camped. An extended family there decides to put on a Christmas pageant in gratitude for some distant relatives who live nearby who have allowed them to use their shower. So the climax of the play begins with the homely pageant, introduced by a reading of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke. That reading is part of any Christmas celebration there. It is beautiful in Finnish and full of emotional richness for me, a symbol of my happiness there, I suppose. This time the reading began abruptly, and I wasn’t expecting it. Immediately as the character began to recite it, however, a profound sense of longing overcame me. I choked up with tears of gratitude.
Then Sunday morning in our little church community, we had a wonderful service. Every part of it from prayers of gratitude to prayers of confession, to our (always prolonged) sharing of the peace gave me deepening awareness of my belonging. The music was energetic and rich. Our teacher for the morning was a professor on sabbatical who’s been part of our community for only seven months. One aspect of her teaching was a recounting the richness of our community and its importance for her spiritual journey. One of the events she recounted was my acknowledging my Alzheimer’s and the community’s welcoming my vulnerability with obvious caring. Another person prayed for Marja and me. There was a powerful sense of community.
In our church we offer each other communion. When the time came, Marja was right in back of me in line, so, after I’d taken communion, served by the person in front of me, I turned to offer the bread to Marja. I choked up so much that it took me, perhaps, a full minute to get the words out, “This is the body of Jesus broken for you.” Each time, I was overcome each time by tears of joy, of gratitude, and of connection.
(I thought it was pretty funny, however, when Marja and I talked about it later over supper. She had thought I was crying because I was frustrated from not being able to remember the words. Oh, well, so much for soulful communication between the marital partners brought close by this terrible disease.)
For my entire life until now, I’ve been particularly unemotional, due, I believe, to clinical depression. I felt few emotions, and crying during communion was certainly not normal behavior for me. Perhaps it’s the loosening of inhibitions that’s common to Alzheimer’s. Whatever is causing it, it feels rich.
I’ve always been intellectually aware of the profound privilege of my life: I was given a sharp intellect; I’m in good physical shape; Marja’s and my relationship is wonderful; my children are doing well; I’ve always had meaningful work for which I’ve been well compensated and appreciated; I have a supportive community; we have no financial problems, and on and on and on. So I’ve always known how good I had it but have never experienced the gratitude that our good fortune would usually evoke. Perhaps my happiness and contentment over the past months have not been so much new as old, never-before-experienced feelings of joy and contentment. Perhaps this Alzheimer’s is allowing me to enjoy my life for the first time, not because things are any better, but because I’m more emotionally in touch with the goodness.
I feel rooted, grounded. I’m where I’m supposed to be. I’m not looking for something else, something better. And this gift comes through my disease.