“Every old man I see reminds me of my father when he had fallen in love with death”
atrick Kavanagh’s words are to the forefront of my mind as I’m walking through St Anne’s Park in Raheny, Dublin, one May morning. Although my dad has been dead for over a decade I’m hit by an unexpected wave of sadness after exchanging smiles with an elderly man out walking his dog.
My dad, Tommy, died from Alzheimer’s disease in July 2008. It took me a full year to recall any good memories, and several more years to fully come to terms with his illness and the manner in which he spent the final decade of his life. Whenever I try to describe that period of our family history, ‘traumatic’ is the word that immediately springs to mind. His illness dominated every conversation for years — with my mother Nora and my sister Barbara, and with my husband and our close friends.
Long before there was a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, there were signs that things were amiss. We started to notice that dad seemed distracted during conversations. A holiday in Spain for his 70th birthday was the last overseas trip, as airports and eating out became too stressful for him. There were family occasions where he insisted on leaving early — the noise was overwhelming and he couldn’t hear what people were saying. We put it down to old age and hearing loss.
But during a weekend away in Cork, dad took some bank notes from his shirt pocket and sent shivers down my mother’s spine when he asked her, “what do I do with this?” He had no idea what money was. When she got home she went to Raheny Library to look up books about Alzheimer’s disease.
Initially, myself and my sister thought mam was exaggerating how bad things were. We’d breeze in and out at the weekends with our young children — the intensity of their toddler behaviour masking any changes in dad’s. He was a quiet man so we didn’t dwell on the fact that he wasn’t fully partaking in our conversations. He doted on his grandchildren and was always cheerful and happy to see us.
But mam knew that something was wrong. She brought him to the GP who referred him to the Memory Clinic in Beaumont Hospital, and it was there that he was officially diagnosed as being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
He was prescribed Aricept which stalled the progress of the disease. However his short-term memory was badly affected. While he still had a terrific recall for details from the past — he could describe GAA matches from the 1950s and 1960s in minute detail — he’d ask the same questions over and over again.
We learned to go along with this, although it was incredibly frustrating and exhausting for my mother. This continued for two years until November 2007 when he fell down the steps at Raheny Church and broke three ribs. Physically he healed quickly, but the fall had caused irreparable psychological damage.
All his previous sporting interests evaporated. His concentration was so bad he was no longer able to read the newspaper. It was awful to see him so confused and terrified of being left on his own. We’d arrive over to mind him, and before we’d have the kids and all their paraphernalia unpacked from the car, mam would be sprinting down the road to the train station desperate for some head space. He would repeatedly ask where she was and if she was coming back. Our answers were forgotten as soon as we had uttered them. It was then that I began to truly understand the huge trauma they were both enduring.
That was our reality for the next six months. Mam was his full-time carer bearing the brunt of living 24 hours a day with her husband whose grip on reality was slipping. She was hurtling towards a breakdown, so as well as worrying about dad, we were also very concerned about her and her physical and mental well-being.
I grieved continuously as dad declined before our eyes. He no longer knew who we were or remembered places we had lived and precious occasions we had shared. By March he couldn’t complete sentences, and followed mam around the house, terrified she would disappear. Sometimes he’d wake up during the night and get dressed, insisting that it was morning time so mam would have to cajole him back to bed and sit with him until he fell asleep. He paced around the house, opening and locking doors, paranoid that there were people watching him.
One Friday at Easter he wanted to go somewhere, so we brought him to a local cafe. As soon as he sat down he got extremely distressed and told me to never bring him out again — “I’m too old and my nerves are gone,” he said. That morning he had asked: “Am I going to heaven now?” He knew he was very sick and didn’t want to live any more. It was heartbreaking.
We secretly hoped he would die from a heart attack or in his sleep because we knew the last stage of Alzheimer’s was horrific. It sounds barbaric to wish death for someone you love, but as much as we didn’t want to lose him, witnessing him endure this cruel disease was unbearable. I had always thought that people with Alzheimer’s were content in their own world because they didn’t know what was going on. But dad was tormented. He stressed about keys and locks, he told me there was a curse on the house and that he felt nothing he did was right.
Over the next six weeks his health plummeted — his nerves were shattered and any noise like a door banging or the kids shouting or dropping a toy would upset him hugely. He became aggressive and we feared for mam’s safety. This change in his personality was the cruellest aspect of the disease. We knew he needed full-time professional care.
Thankfully after a lot of phone calls to the social worker and health nurse, he was offered a bed in St Ita’s Hospital in Portrane, Co Dublin. We were relieved but also devastated that it had come to this. He had been so happy in our family home in Raheny for 25 years, yet by this stage he didn’t even realise it was his home. His home was a place in his memory from his childhood. We were warned that his condition might deteriorate with the change in environment, and it did. His speech worsened and within a few days he could only put two or three words together, and after almost four decades of marriage he no longer recognised my mother.
After only seven weeks in St Ita’s, dad was rushed into Beaumont Hospital as he had stopped eating. For the next six weeks we swung from hope to despair and back again. We would just be getting our heads around the fact that the end was near, and then he would start eating or talking again. I had vivid dreams that he had recovered and for a few brief moments when I woke a huge weight was lifted from me. Then reality would hit and despair would descend once more.
His agitation continued in hospital until mam begged the doctors to give him something to calm him down. The palliative care team prescribed a combination of a sedative and painkiller and thankfully his distress disappeared. We sat by his bed for the final two weeks, holding his hand and talking to him. I was pregnant with my third child and told him my news before anyone else. He replied, “that’s great”. It was one of the rare days when he talked and those two simple words brought me huge comfort.
Normally we took it in turns to visit but on the night he died the three of us were there together by his bedside. We chatted to him about the grandchildren and my recent holiday in Wexford. None of us or the doctors realised how close to the end he was but he died shortly after we left the hospital.
The stress of the final years of dad’s illness left us physically and emotionally drained. What got us through was the support of family and friends who would listen to us when we needed to vent, and who came to visit dad to show their love for him and to give mam a break. It’s not an easy illness to deal with so we’re forever grateful for their support.
Dad was president of Raheny Shamrock Athletic Club and his club mates, who were like a second family to him, formed a guard of honour at his funeral and organised a Garda escort to the graveyard. His dear friend Pat Hooper gave a beautiful eulogy at the mass that encapsulated the wonderful man he was and the full life he had lived. Family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues and his sporting comrades shared stories with us of the man they knew and loved.
However, when I tried to conjure up images of dad before his illness, my mind consistently drew a blank. I knew we had enjoyed wonderful times — my childhood was an extremely happy one. But the trauma of his final years was too overwhelming. My brain refused to allow me to recall better times.
It took a full year before those memories returned in fits and starts. A few weeks before his first anniversary, the Raheny Shamrocks held a race in his honour — the inaugural annual Tommy Lynam Memorial Race. It was there in St Anne’s Park inhaling the smell of grass and Deep Heat, and the camaraderie and banter between the runners, that I began the process of reclaiming him.
I began to recall the corny jokes he would tell, the chats ‘as Gaeilge’ we shared and our grá of traditional music. I remembered how much joy his grandkids gave him as he played football and peek-a-boo. My cousins told me how much they loved him and how his passion for sport inspired their own sporting activities. On his 10th anniversary I ran in his race, alongside my cousins and friends.
Although grief never fully dissipates, the painful images of dad’s illness have receded so that he is no longer defined by it. The real Tommy Lynam has re-emerged to regain his rightful place in our family history.