“What’s difficult in life is to stay centered when somebody does or says something that tempts us to close our hearts…That is hard. But that is also how we grow. We go through those circumstances in order to evolve into people who can hold to our loving center no matter what the world throws us.” – Rudyard Kipling
For one week I laid supine on the cool wooden floor on top of my yoga mat learning to guide Yoga Nidra, a method of guided meditation intended to deeply rejuvenate and relax all levels of being. An integral inquiry of the practice is to connect with your heart’s deepest longing.
Afraid of what it might reveal, I couldn’t.
No matter how I wanted to, no matter how I forced it, tried to allow it, invite it, wish for it, hope for it, I couldn’t. I eventually gave up on it. My mind whirling: What should I want? What do I need? I surrendered to the block and set an intention to remain open.
Amidst this frustrating and seemingly effortless practice, my father who is 85 years old and has dementia ran away from my house. The juxtaposition of me spending hours unsuccessfully trying to connect with my heart and my 85 year old father easily acting on his became a clarion experience.
Driving 85 miles an hour down the turnpike when I got the call that he had set out at high noon on foot on one of the hottest days of the summer drove me to desperation. Slides depicting worst case scenarios repeatedly flashed in my head of him lost in the woods, laying dead by the pond, hit by a truck on the side of the road.
Headlines of the derelict daughter haunted me. I pulled my car over, stopped myself, sat and breathed. I somehow knew he’d be alright; I just needed to find him as soon as possible. Dialing into my former prosecutor’s skillset, I covered all bases of the search, routes he would likely navigate, clothes he was wearing, canine officers’ schedules just in case. Emails, calls and texts flew as I set out my multi jurisdictional dragnet to ensnare him.
Though I knew he was setting out for only one place, like a wily cat, he eluded me. While I frantically received calls from friends and relatives as far as Springfield reporting sightings of him, he was eventually found contentedly sitting in his backyard, some 10 miles from his start point.
I greeted him, wanting to respond with anger, frustration. He looked up at me. With clarity in his eyes, sublime softness in his face, he emanated peacefulness. He knew exactly where he was and what he had done and was deeply pleased, content. He was proud of himself. At a time when he experiences so much daily loss, confusion and fear, he had successfully navigated his own way HOME.
His response to me was, “I had a great day Mary Beth and I’m going to do it again tomorrow.” He saw no danger in his action, all he could feel was renewed self worth. He had proven to himself that he was still highly capable. Drawing on his determination, physical stamina, and heart’s desire, he had traveled back to his home, regardless of the tears cried by his grandkids out on bikes searching for their grandfather. For me, it was a day of high emotion and intensity. For him, it was a day of joy. Like a homing pigeon, he could still find his way home.
I felt my anger melt, my heart breaking open once again in the midst of a challenging new situation with him. There was indeed a part of me that admired his capacity to manifest what he felt deep inside, how he so easily connected with his heart and act on it despite danger and logic.
Unencumbered by rational thought, it was imperative he listen to his heart, act on those impulses and get that need met. Feeling I had failed him, I wondered why, despite my best attempts to attune my daily life to his needs, keep him engaged with daily travel, fed a diet of his favorite home cooked foods, and occupied with outdoor activities to keep him fit, he still wanted to be home.
It was now obvious. His home was his heartspace. That space I longed to connect with, he so easily found the physical manifestation of. His home was his heart’s deepest longing.
This day challenged me yet again to learn to communicate with him in a new way. Learning to understand what motivated his action and relating to him from a place of understanding and love was the only answer. As dementia has stripped his ability to conform his behavior to societal norms of male emotional restraint, he continues to reveal parts of himself to me that amaze me.
As he goes to the space of emptiness, what remains is that his essence is love. This realization made more remarkable by a lifetime of emotional bottling,
Dr. Brene Brown, a top social scientist, has made a career out of researching vulnerability and whole-hearted living. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she concludes from her research that, “all human beings are deeply wired for connection”. The notion is beguilingly simple, provocative and true. It explains our search for faith, community and intimate partnership as well as more troubling patterns of behavior that serve to block and avoid deep connection.
When I see the behavior of my father at this stage of life, he embodies whole-hearted living. The search for his home, his unceasing inquiry of all females as potential companions, and his readiness to strike up conversation with all strangers he meets serve as points of potential connection for him each day. Each greeted with an open vulnerable sharing of his heart intention.
Living with and taking care of my father is not a virtuous act. Often my children serve to light the way for me to transform burden to blessing. They readily appreciate his constant serenading of strangers, his daily inquiries into the status of their love life.
As the great escape happened that day, they too felt great fear but easily released it to compassion for their grandfather, gently plying him with examples of good behavior that would warrant more positive attention in the future, hoping their schooling in positive behavior support would deter future dangerous escapades.
I’d like to believe everything happens for a reason — to teach us, to lead us to greater opening . What I learned as I experienced the tumult of emotions that day was that if I view life from his heart-centered perspective, almost all our actions make sense.
In each moment we either move toward love or away from it in fear. Dementia’s grim aspects are often all that is reported as family’s grapple with loss and new states of relating. We have experienced our fair share of those moments.
Certainly this day had watershed moments of new despair about my father’s path with dementia. But committing to surrender rather than control on this journey has altered the experience.
My father’s dementia continues to call my family to view uncomfortable challenges with compassion and love. It has made us a better family as he shows us the importance of expressing love, receiving love and connecting with heart’s deepest longing at all times in life.
September is World Alzheimer’s Month. Across the globe, 35 million people and their families are affected by dementia. It’s going to take all of us to change these numbers. Visit the Alzheimer’s Association for three easy ways you can get involved and help end Alzheimer’s.