Ever since my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease during my senior year in college, I have paid close attention to news of potential cures. So I was riveted one morning this fall when I read about the team of American and Chinese researchers who had used a pair of anti-cancer drugs already on the market to treat Alzheimer's in fruit flies and mice. Their drug cocktail had a startling effect on the demented animals: It reversed their memory loss.
News of their discovery made me think back to my father and all that he had suffered since that frigid January night in 1996 when my parents called me to announce his diagnosis. I remember staring at the cross on my stark white bedroom wall as my father assured me that God would take care of him. "Remember," he had said, quoting his favorite verse from Romans, "everything works together for good for those who love God."
Understanding how Paul's words applied to Alzheimer's was not always easy. Every stage on my father's 12-year journey through dementia was a difficult one, from the early days when my mother and I would search frantically for him as he wandered lost in the neighborhood he no longer knew to the middle years when I would arrive at their home to find him rumpled and confused, his once-neat salt-and-pepper hair mussed and wild as he wandered aimlessly from room to room. Then there was the last stage, when the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer's had choked off Dad's memories not only of old stories and friends but of how to talk, how to swallow, and finally, how to breathe.
What if we could have given Dad a drug to reverse all that, to rewind his 12-year deterioration and restore him to the man he was before Alzheimer's struck? Such a cure would have been a glorious thing for him and for us, and for the 5.4 million Americans still battling Alzheimer's.
In reflecting on the prospect of erasing Dad's Alzheimer's experience, though, I find myself pondering all that would be erased along with it. I think of the hundreds of grace-filled moments I knew while accompanying my father on the dark road of dementia: the side-splitting laughter we enjoyed at the silliest things that caught his fancy; the sight of him tenderly stroking my mother's hair on days when his dependence left her especially exhausted; the light I saw in his eyes when I would tuck him into his nursing home bed at night and he would tell me, for the umpteenth time that day, how much he loved me.
Back when I first heard Dad's diagnosis, if you had told me that I would someday reflect with gratitude on any part of my father losing his mind, I would have said you had lost yours. We live in a culture that exalts rationality, autonomy and productivity above all else. What good could there be in a disease that robs its victims of all three?
It's a tough question even for many Christians to answer. We look at our demented loved ones, no longer sure of where they are or even who they are, and we wonder if the world may be right when it tells us that their suffering has no meaning, that Alzheimer's has stolen not only their memories but their dignity, perhaps even their very souls.
Yet Scripture tells us otherwise. Its passages about God's special love for those who appear weak and foolish in the eyes of the world suggest that Alzheimer's patients can be powerful conduits of grace in our lives, if we have eyes to see.
My own eyes were opened to that truth by one of my father's favorite spiritual writers, Thérèse of Lisieux. A 19th-century French nun whose posthumously published Story of a Soul became a worldwide bestseller, Thérèse is famous for her spirituality of childlike trust based on Jesus' command in the Gospel of Matthew: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." (Matt 19:14) Thérèse's "little way of spiritual childhood," as it became known, helped her cope with a trial I knew well: the agony of watching a beloved parent's descent into dementia.
Shortly after she entered the convent, Thérèse's father suffered a series of paralytic strokes that led to hallucinations, memory lapses, slurred speech, and even confinement in a mental institution. She agonized over his suffering and wept privately over his condition, describing it as the "most bitter and most humiliating of all chalices."
Yet Thérèse saw meaning in his ordeal. She regarded his increasing dependence on relatives as an avenue to greater intimacy with his loved ones and God. She noticed her father losing interest in earthly things and saw God "flooding him with consolations" even as he lost his status and possessions—a purification process that she believed God was allowing to make her father more like the suffering Christ.
For Thérèse, her father's trial ended not in tragedy but in triumph—union with God after a long process of becoming the kind of childlike follower that Jesus extols in the Gospels. She believed that her father's losses and humiliations had refined his soul and made him someone to be admired, not pitied. "Now that he is in heaven," Thérèse wrote, "…never again will the divine hand be removed from the head it has crowned with glory."
Thérèse's refreshing and profoundly biblical perspective on dementia helped change my own. I began to notice signs in my own father of the same transformation she had seen in hers: a gradual increase of faith, hope and love amid his cognitive decline. I came to appreciate Dad's irrepressible joy, even when his one-liners made no sense; his greater sensitivity to others' suffering, even though he could not comprehend its causes; and the steadfast confidence of that phrase he repeated with increasing frequency as his disease progressed. "I'm in God's hands," he would say, whenever someone asked how he was. "We're all in God's hands."
The trial of Alzheimer's is one I would not wish on any individual or family. But neither can I deny the surprising truth that I discovered in the midst of it: that my father and his favorite saints were right. God can bring good out of anything, even Alzheimer's.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, journalist, television host and former presidential speechwriter whose latest book is My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir. Her website is www.colleen-campbell.com.