My graduate school commencement ceremony was fast approaching, and I knew it would be next to impossible for my dad to attend. My dad, who is in his 80s, is living with Alzheimer's disease.
Just the drive to and from the school would be a challenge for him, so I made arrangements for the assisted living facility to live stream the ceremony. Little did I know, my family had other plans in mind. My mom had asked the assisted living health coordinator if my dad would be able to make it to Emory & Henry and back. She said, “Yes!” and the entire staff was let in on the plan. The big surprise was underway.
The day of graduation I got there early with my mom. We were able to save seats and still have a good view of the stage. As we were counting the seats, I noticed my mom had counted one extra. I asked her why, thinking maybe my cousin might be coming. Mom fought back tears and replied, “Your father.”
After hearing those words I broke down. I was so emotional, because I knew how difficult it was for him to make the trip. My brother Tim would drive him over so he could be there in person. That was the only graduation gift I wanted - for both parents to see me graduate.
When I met my classmates to line up, I broke down again as I shared my good news with them. A few of my friends joined me in shedding tears of happiness.
It wasn't until I got to my seat that I saw my dad. He was wearing my school colors, including an ‘Emory & Henry Dad’ hat. He asked my mom why I was crying, and she told him I was so happy to see him. During the ceremony, I got up and walked over to him. I squeezed both his hands, smiled at him, gave him a kiss on the cheek and told him I was so glad to see him. His face lit up. I knew he was proud of me for what I had accomplished even if he had no idea what was going on. God planned it perfectly.
Throughout the ceremony he was able to focus on me, his "punkin.” We looked at each other from the rows, smiling, waving, winking and mouthing “I love you.” Those were precious moments I will always treasure.
On the way back to the assisted living my dad was his old self. He even cracked a joke! I was driving, dad was beside me in the passenger seat and my mom was behind me, when dad asked “Where’s mom?” “She is behind us,” I said. He gazed confusedly at the side view mirror, pretending to look for her and said “I don’t see her.” The whole car broke into laughter. I laughed so hard that my body was shaking and no sound was coming out. For two minutes my dad was back. He was his jokester self.
Having him there with me was the perfect surprise and the best graduation gift.
As many of you know, Alzheimer’s is a very heartbreaking disease. But throughout our “Alzheimer’s journey,” there has been light amid the darkness. I have learned to treasure every moment I spend with my dad, to laugh with him and to love him for being him. I thank God for blessing me with an amazing family and for making my graduation day one I will never forget.
Even though my dad doesn’t remember that day, I always will. It was a day of light.
About the Author: Sara Gearheart, 29, is a children's director from Virginia. For the last five years, she has been the team captain for her Walk to End Alzheimer's team "The Journey." Sara is a caregiver for her dad who is living with Alzheimer's.