TODAY IS THE GREATEST: a question about emotional memory in Alzheimer’s 

My parents just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and my dad teared up. This is remarkable for a few reasons:

1) he’s a Marine (there are no ex-Marines)

2) while a very passionate person, he only ever cried in sadness and melancholy, not in joy

3) he has advancing Alzheimer’s disease

When my mother raised a glass of sparkling cider and toasted their meeting 52 years ago, their many adventures, and their lasting bond through thick and thin (she was more eloquent than that), she cried joyful tears. As she did, my father’s eyes, fixed on her, began to tear up. 

He didn’t weep and he’d probably want me to makethe distinction that no tears actually touched his cheek, nonetheless he had an appropriately emotional response. 

For some time now, a year at least, Alzheimer’s has transformed my father from a man of conviction and manly demeanor to something more like a robot. Dad-bot would express a smiling greeting when meeting me, and an equal smiling fairwell when it was time to go. In between, he’d chuckle at jokes he didn’t seem to get, and on rare occasion take part in conversation – though admittedly his part didn’t often fit. 

His eyes turned red and glossy. Gazing, not glaring, not staring, into my mother’s face. As her face contorted with crying I thought I sensed that he was moving to get up and comfort her. But like seeing an angel in the clouds, it is gone, reverted back to soft, drifting cumulus. 

Why did he cry? I imagine it was either because:

A) he felt her emotion and empathized with it, like any of us might

B) the gravity of 50 years of marriage, with family all around struck him with significance


C) seeing the most familiar face in his universe transform into a distinctive crying posture caused him to mirror what he saw – not unlike mirroring the smiles and joy of a greeting or the bittersweet of a farewell. 

D) he was expressing frustration or even fear or pain for his inability to properly participate in what was clearly an important, emotional moment. 

I don’t know which of these is correct. Maybe all to varying degrees. I do know that cues were present (family, champagne glasses, focused attention) that told everyone else in the room that, here we were again, celebrating a happy/somber/significant moment in the story of our family. I would like to know which it was because that would help me better interact with my dad in ways we could meaningfully share.

But at the same time, the times we have spent, were spending, and will still spend, for however long or under whatever condition it might be, are all here with me in the non-linear ocean of my being, and I’m grateful for it. 

“Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known” – Smashing Pumpkins


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