An Unfinished Story

“And then they came.” wrote Chuck Lyons for Wild West Magazine, about the 1874: Year of the Locust. Imagine a swarm of forty billion hungry, chomping insects descending upon the land. Since the beginning of recorded history, locusts have plagued many parts of the earth, devouring millions of acres of crops, and destroying all things in their path. Within a few days, what was once the growing livelihood of a farmer becomes an unrecognizable stretch of scattered debris.

Without warning, like in the year of the locust, one of the most dreaded diseases known to mankind swept into our family with the sole purpose of devouring and destroying everything in its path. For almost ten years, Alzheimer’s relentlessly plagued the brain and body of my husband, Richard, the person I loved most in this world.

In 2010, Richard joined the more than five and a half million people in the United States diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. We can read a statistic like this and miss the sad reality that each number represents a person, not to mention the countless others who love and care for them. In Richard’s case, he was a husband, father, grandfather, and brother; a man deeply loved by all of us. He was the Chief Executive Officer of a well known Fortune 500 company, brilliant and admired by people from all over the world.

Since Richard’s late fifties, dementia was already rearing its ugly head. After thirty years living in our town, forgetting the way home from our favorite restaurant seemed like more than just a little confusion. In the months that followed, losing keys, glasses and other essential things became troubling as this happened multiple times throughout each day. At first, Richard would smile when the missing item was finally found. But, as the days of annoyance in the world of forgetfulness increased, he became irritable, accusing others of deliberately moving things that belonged to him.

On one of his business trips, Richard and I spoke by phone the night before he planned to red-eye home the next morning. The time of his expected arrival came, and he didn’t show up. For hours I called his cell phone but received no answer. I contacted anyone who might have information on his whereabouts without success. By the time he called me later that evening, I was frantic with worry! When I confronted him about my concern, he got angry and said we never discussed him coming home that morning.

Many times I wanted to reach out to Richard’s assistant who besides me knew him best, but I couldn’t do it. Tarnishing his reputation by planting thoughts of dementia was unthinkable. If I found talking about my suspicion impossible, then, of course, no one else would be comfortable approaching me on such a difficult subject. My heart broke in the aloneness I felt.

Five long, troubling years went by, and when Richard started making mistakes of a more severe nature than misplacing items or forgetting an appointment, I confronted him about getting a medical evaluation. Reluctantly, he agreed. At the University of Virginia, extensive tests were administered. Three weeks later, we returned to the hospital to receive the results.

I felt such heaviness sitting in the waiting room and wanted to grab Richard and run. But where could we go to avoid the horrible reality I believed awaited us on the other side of the door? For over forty years, as husband and wife and best friends, we had always carried difficult burdens together. Now, as if keeping silent would make the whole thing go away, Richard had begun to withdraw and shut everyone out, including me.

The door opened, and the doctor invited us to come into his office. He got right to the point. “I’m sorry, Richard, you have Alzheimer’s.” Though not surprised by his words, hearing them spoken out loud for the first time had a stunning effect on both Richard and me. Adding yet another blow, we were told Richard must give up driving, something he loved as a collector of rare cars. The doctor continued as if going down a long list of boxes needing to be checked off. “You must resign from every business board and release all business decisions that impact other people. You will need to get your affairs in order.” How were we to assimilate what sounded more like a verdict than a diagnosis? Richard was only 62 years old. I prayed quietly, begging God to wake me from this horrible nightmare.

As we left the appointment, in a heartbreaking moment, Richard handed me the car keys. We drove from Charlottesville to Richmond in silence. Once inside our house, we hugged each other and cried for hours.

Being able to share what I had once feared in private opened a life-line. Family and friends added stability to the inevitable changes in our present and ongoing circumstances. We chose doctors from Johns Hopkins Hospital to be Richard’s medical team. They kept a close watch on the progression of the disease, which appeared to be moving more quickly than average. In August of 2013, his doctors determined that Richard had a rare form of Alzheimer’s, called Posterior Cortical Atrophy, affecting less than five percent of people diagnosed. They arrived at this conclusion given his symptoms of early vision impairment, and balance issues causing him to fall often. With sadness, one of the doctors said to me, “we believe Richard could be bed-ridden within a year.”

Just when I thought it impossible, everything got worse! How could I tell our children and grandchildren that this man we all love so much would likely deteriorate even more quickly than suspected? But if their diagnosis was right, time was of the essence, and they deserved to know.

On June 21, 2014, almost one year after learning about Posterior Cortical Atrophy, through a series of events, Richard did, in fact, become bedridden. Then, on June 24th, four days later, my daughter’s and I released this precious man into the loving arms of God.

Four years have passed since Richard died. I miss the stories and laughter we shared; the memories we once cherished belong only to me now. I often think about 1968, when Richard and I, two young high school sweethearts fell in love and married. We planned our future and worked hard to have it come to fruition. Dreaming of having a family and creating a long and beautiful life together was well on track. Then, with two words, Alzheimer’s Disease, our hope evaporated, and dreams were cut short. I am reminded of the Scripture, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’S purpose that prevails.” (Proverbs 19:21)

While I cannot fully understand God’s “purpose that prevails” on this side of heaven, I do believe His promises are true. Richard’s and my dreams may appear as hopeless as the farmer’s harvest in a field ravaged by a plague of hungry locusts. But, the story is not over. God promises, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten…” (Joel 2:25)

One day, because of Jesus, I will see Richard again, whole and complete. Sickness and disease will not have the final word. And, God? He is the eternal Author. He alone will write the end of our story.