The Long Run
After losing her father to Alzheimer’s disease, one writer reflects on her relationship with grief and running—and the connections between the two
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As my sisters and I walked through the front door of the nursing home in Valencia, California, Dad ran past the reception desk with two nurses in close pursuit. Dressed in blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, he did not look like a runner, but you could see it in his stride.
Dad had been a runner for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I watched him run races and eventually started jogging with him. I could spot his tall frame lumbering from a distance. He was a heel striker who was always pushing the pace.
The nurses chasing after him seemed less worried than inconvenienced. A receptionist behind the desk pushed the sign-in sheet toward us. It was late afternoon, and staff members were setting up tables in the dining room. Across the hallway, seniors were gathering for punch in a sitting room where visiting musicians played at a weekend happy-hour reception.
Dad was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at 58. When he was 64, the degeneration had progressed to the point of needing help. He got lost in the neighborhood he had lived in for over 30 years. He left the stove on. He couldn’t speak in complete sentences, and he wandered outside at night. He was a danger to himself.
We worried about him getting hit by a car or burning down the house. My sisters and I worried about Mom’s health, too. As his primary caregiver, the stress was taking a toll on her body. She had dark circles under her eyes and had lost an unhealthy amount of weight. So we moved Dad into a care facility. The place was close to home, it had nice landscaping, and we could visit easily and often. Still, it was the hardest decision of any of our lives. It felt like giving up.
As he ran by that day, Dad smiled, looking over his shoulder at us, his three girls. He laughed wildly and kept running. That was two years before he died. The disease was ravaging his brain, and at the moment he was sprinting down the hallway as if it were a childish game of chase.