Network of zippers with missing teeth sending interrupted signals to each other like damaged neurons.

The Tale of the Tooth of the Zipper: Practicing Patience With My Dad

It was hard to watch as Dad became more and more disabled. He had been a doctor and a full Colonel in the US Army and a hospital commander. He and Mom settled in New Orleans, Louisiana, after he retired, so she could be within a day’s drive of her family in Mississippi, and he could be near an airport to see his in Texas, Ohio, and Washington.

After Hurricane Katrina left their house under six feet of water, I talked my folks into buying the house down the street from me in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY. I knew dad would need more care one day and mom would need more help. If my kids stayed on the sidewalk, they could walk from our house to Grandma and Grandpa’s house without crossing the street. This could be good for all of us.

Moving in with my parents

Eventually, my husband Scott and I sold our home and moved our family in with my parents. Their house down the street was better for them than my split-level home. They wouldn’t have to worry about the stairs. Our family could take the upstairs and the basement, and my parents could have the first floor. The laundry set up was in the kitchen. My kids could keep their friends and their school and gain a better bus stop. Two households became one.

Part of getting my parents resettled in Buffalo was finding them new doctors. My dad had a shunt in his brain from a previous condition, so we figured we would find a neurologist to continue following him up. At our first visit with this new doctor, he diagnosed dad with Parkinson’s and probably Alzheimer’s diseases.

The broken zipper

The doctor gave my mom and me a copy of the book, The 36-Hour Day, by Nancy Mace and Peter Rabins. It was meant to be helpful, but I was a little afraid to read it. Part of me didn’t want to know how bad it could get. Part of me wanted to stay in the moment where it wasn’t that bad. My mom was doing the heaving lifting. I wanted to support her and protect/prepare my kids for what was happening and what was to come. I steeled myself and read.

The stories in the book weren’t all my story, but a big thing I got out of it was the idea of a broken zipper.  When you try to zip up a jacket, and there is a tooth missing, the zipper pull won’t go up any higher, even though the rest of the zipper is intact. The trick with Alzheimer’s is there could be a different tooth missing each day or any given moment.

That is a huge concept to grasp. You don’t know what will happen or when. It's unpredictable. The teeth on the other side of the gap may still be there, but just. can’t. be accessed. right now. Maybe later? Maybe never again. Sorry, but I really didn’t like the film, "The Notebook." Maybe it’s a sweet story for other people, but it scares the crap out of me!

One thing at a time

A big thing I was worried about was my dad not knowing me or any of us. It is a gift to me that I believe he did to the end. We were standing outside of our house when my dad looked at me, then looked at my mom, and sheepishly struggled to ask, "Now, what did we name her?" THAT WAS THE SWEETEST THING TO ME!! He knew me. A lot of people may forget my name, but he still knew me. That’s what mattered. I’ll take it!

Maybe parenting has taught me something about broken zipper moments. I have to be the grownup now. In the moment, they can’t help it. It’s not on purpose. It’s not the end of the world. Be patient and reassuring, so gasoline isn’t poured on the fire of their unsettled frustration (or yours). One. drama. at a time.

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