By Carly Wolberg
On the morning of June 11th 2014, I got a phone call that forever changed my life. My mom was on the other line, somberly telling me that my father of 60 years had passed away that morning.
I vividly remember that morning—I remember bawling my eyes out, losing my breath in tears in Newell Rubbermaid’s Charlotte office—where I worked as a summer intern. I remember my mom telling me in tears on the phone to come home as soon as possible so we could hold each other. I remember feeling numb in the days, in the weeks following that phone call—not knowing exactly how to feel, not knowing how to communicate to the outside world, and not knowing exactly how I was going to find the strength to go back to school that fall to finish my senior year of college.
As shocking and devastating as that call was, it hadn’t been an easy three years prior. In the Spring of 2012 (my freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill), my dad was diagnosed with younger onset Alzheimer’s disease.
My dad had grown up in Winston-Salem, N.C.—and was the epitome of a kind, sweet, quiet, selfless, Southern gentleman. He was a family guy—my mom, my sister, our goldendoodle, and I were the center of his life. He loved to run on the weekends and hibernate in the basement, aka “the man cave,” in our house during UNC basketball season. However, younger onset Alzheimer’s took this happy, peaceful life from my dad and stole my father from me.
It would get harder to come home from school. I would see my dad decline more and more, and my mom having to accommodate for his new diminished capabilities. He was forced to retire from his job at the V.A. where he worked for over 30 years. He was forced to give up his keys to drive. My dad was soon completely dependent on my mom. What was worse was watching my dad go through this—watching him get unbelievable frustrated when he couldn’t remember how to shave, when he would get lost going to the bathroom or when he would try so hard to get dressed on his own, but just couldn’t figure it out and had to ask my mom for help.
I could tell my dad was embarrassed when he had to have his 20 year-old daughter drive him around town, prepare his meals for him and tie his shoes. I was embarrassed when we would go out to eat in public, and my dad would make a scene with the waiter or have an accident in his pants. The worst part about younger onset Alzheimer’s disease was that no one could see it just by looking at my dad. He was a thin, otherwise healthy man, and by his looks, no one would guess that my dad was terminally ill and battling Alzheimer’s.
It was particularly hard to communicate our family’s hardships to friends—and have them understand the reality that my family was living. I think that most associate Alzheimer’s solely with memory loss, but there is so much more beyond that—so much more ugliness that younger onset Alzheimer’s disease causes.
Towards the end in 2014, my dad couldn’t remember my name. I remember visiting him at the hospital the weekend before he passed away—and even though he didn’t know who I was, my last words I said to him were, “I love you daddy. See you later.” Little did I know that I wouldn’t be seeing him later. I couldn’t be more thankful that I decided to come home that weekend instead of celebrating my 21st birthday in Charlotte.
I frequently question why my dad had to be taken from me at age 21. However, I find peace knowing that my dad is no longer suffering.
I found the strength in the summer of 2014—in large part due to my mom—to go back to school, complete my senior year at UNC, and get a full-time job offer at Amazon.com. I continue to live my life to make my dad proud and I try to live life to the fullest and be happy, because I know my dad would want nothing more than to see me smiling. Oh, and I don’t think I ever really thanked my dad for giving me my crazy curly hair. So thank you, dad. I love you.
Editors note: Carly is a regular contributor to ALZWA Blog. Learn more about her story and family’s journey and read previous posts here: Marketing, Princeton and Alzheimer’s: How mom brought us together, The Strength of Community.