Snapshots of Dementia: Surprise!
When Tom turned 60 in March of 2016, our family threw him a major surprise party. I wanted to make it special because I’d never really held a big party for him before, and his father died at age 59 of a massive heart attack so we all saw this as a milestone birthday.
The evening included family, friends, food and (no surprise to anyone who knows Tom, a longtime professional trumpet player and worship pastor) a music theme complete with vinyl records lining one wall, note-shaped balloons atop black-and-white balloon towers and a musical staff where friends could write their own notes on (you guessed it) notes!
I would never have pulled off such an incredible party without huge help from all of our children (forever kudos to our daughter Kristen, party planner and decorate extraordinaire). We scheduled it two weeks before his actual birthday because our two youngest daughters, both still in college, had spring break on successive weeks, and the weekend in between was the only time we could guarantee they could both attend.
However, I could have pulled off the surprise element on my own. Even then, Tom’s mind did not hold onto dates and events. For at least a year before this, I had begun to wonder what might be happening with him.
That night, I only needed one small lie to get him to the nearby church venue. “Remember? It’s David’s (a mutual friend’s) birthday, and they’re having a surprise party for him. I asked you, and you said we should go.”
Of course, no one had invited us to this nonexistent party, and we had never discussed anything about going to the church. But I knew he would think he’d just forgotten one more conversation. Everything happened exactly as I thought, and we walked into the fellowship hall as scheduled.
What happened next gave the party a personal subtext I’ll never forget. As we stood at the door with all our children along with many friends calling out, “Surprise,” I watched Tom turn and stare. Turn and stare. Stare some more. He looked at me.
“These people don’t even know David,” he said at last.
I stood on tiptoe, gave him a hug and whispered, “This party’s for you, baby. It’s your surprise party!”
Only then did the understanding come over his face. But for the next 10 minutes or so, he still seemed in shock.
Later, he said he was so surprised that he couldn’t process it all. And I don’t doubt that a bit. But what I also believe was that his brain was already showing definite signs of decline, signs that still didn’t show up on an MRI he had close to a year later.
And I knew my quick-witted husband. I knew he had consistently been the first person with a witty retort and the last person to need help evaluating a situation and making a rapid assessment.
The video one of our daughters took of us entering the room captured the reason for my concern. After watching it once or twice, I couldn’t look at it again. It only served to remind me of what I feared might be true but hoped and prayed was not.
Of course, a one-time event like this doesn’t mean someone has dementia. But it did mean I moved into a watch-and-see mode.
I only wish I hadn’t stayed there as long as I did.
If you have a friend or loved one with dementia, what were some of the first symptoms you noticed? Did a significant event like Tom’s surprise party trigger special watchfulness for you? Feel free to share your comments. Your story matters.