My instincts told me something was wrong as I stepped onto our driveway. The door to our house was wide open and there appeared to be no-one at home. My heart started beating rapidly and I fell into a panic. I quickly ran into the house, hoping someone was there.
Relieved, I found Mum watching TV, but oblivious that Dad, who had been diagnosed with dementia a few yrears back, had disappeared. She said he hadn't been calling out as usual and she simply assumed he was asleep.
"Where did he go, Mum? Where were you?" I asked, accusingly.
My emotions were running high; I was filled with both anger and fear. Fear quickly turned to pain. I was crying so hard my throat hurt. My heart was pumping out of my chest and I couldn’t breathe. I was sweating and my stomach churned. I was an emotional wreck.
Childhood memories flashed before me. Dad and I were at a bowling alley. We were laughing and having fun playing a game. I didn’t know what I’d do if I lost my dad right then. I’d always been Daddy’s little girl and I love him so much.
Mum had forgotten to lock the front door and had turned her back for only a few moments. Dad usually walked slowly, slightly hunched over, but on this day he was like lightning. Mum and I tore through the streets, calling for Dad, but he had vanished. Mum desperately knocked on neighbours’ doors, but just our luck—no-one was home.
Our anxiety increased. I checked the creek across the road, earnestly praying, “God, please don’t let him be caught up in the bushes or fall on the rocks.” I remembered reading somewhere that when people with dementia wander, half of them suffer serious injury or death if they aren’t found within 24 hours.
Crazy thoughts started to run through my mind. Has a car hit him? Has he wandered into a stranger’s house? Did he hop on a train and will he end up far away? The fear consumed me as these worst-case scenarios filled my mind.
We kept searching the streets for what felt like the longest hour. Our dear neighbours pulled up in the driveway and saw how distraught we were. Mum explained what had happened, prompting them to quickly climb back in their car to search streets we hadn’t covered. After about 10 minutes, they returned, unsuccessful.
The next step is to call the police, I remember thinking in my distressed mental state. The police were helpful and asked me multiple questions, which I answered. Then, to my joy and relief, I heard Mum yelling, “He’s home! He’s home!”
Dad had returned! I rushed out to see him as tears welled up in my eyes. The anguish and turmoil had ended. The search was over. My heart beat with happiness beyond understanding.
A big, strong man with his frail, elderly father got out of the car behind Dad. They had seen him walking the streets aimlessly, calling out for Mum. They lived close by and knew where he lived. I called them “angels.” I embraced Dad tightly, so thankful to God for his return. He had come through for me once again and kept Dad safe from danger and harm.
Watching Dad walk straight into the house as if everything was normal made me realise how far the dementia had progressed. This was the first time Dad had wandered
off. It started because he was feeling lonely and frightened. In his attempt to find Mum, he went outside, thinking she was there. As soon as he was out the front door, his memory loss impacted his ability to know where he was.
This insidious disease caused him to revert to being a child. I felt like a mother who had lost her child. But this time it was my dad. The following day I called a locksmith to have a digital lock installed on the front door. We also put locks on the front and back gates.
The incident gave me an awful fright. But it also gave me a deeper understanding of how God searches the earth for us when we wander and the grief He must feel until we return home. I was reminded of the story in Luke 15:4, 5: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders.”
I never thought that at the age of 32 I would be Dad’s caregiver. I guess life isn’t always predictable. Despite the sadness and difficulties that go with this disease, there is a beautiful side to dementia. I’m able to experience all the different parts of him: the vulnerable side, the childlike side and the fighter. I’ve learned to go into his world instead of expecting him to come into mine.
The day I lost Dad will be forever etched in my mind. Looking after him has given me a stronger understanding of the importance of compassion and patience, expanding my heart in ways I would never have imagined. God has also blessed me with supernatural strength to look after Dad at this stage of his life. I’ve learned to look beyond the dementia to see my dad, whom I love.