When TIME asked me to write about my 84-year-old father and his descent into Alzheimer's disease, frankly I figured the article would never appear. Too much of a downer. But it did (TIME, Aug. 30, 1999), and nine months later, I'm still hearing from readers. Many have written to console me with similar stories about their parents. One reader sent me cookies. Gil Morris, of Denton, Texas, sent me a song he had recorded about his mother called Her Broken Heart. Some wrote to tell me about families torn apart by the decisions of how to care for an aging parent; an awful lot had parents who were ripped off or abused by caregivers. There were wonderful suggestions too: adult day-care centers, tracking devices for wandering Alzheimer's patients, and groups trying to develop community-based services so that elderly Alzheimer's sufferers could remain at home.
To those who asked how my dad is faring, the answer is, unfortunately, not well. Thanks to a new Alzheimer's drug, Aricept, he did--almost magically--begin to remember who I was. But days before Christmas, despite his round-the-clock care, he fell. The doctors decided on hip-replacement surgery, which he survived in good form. Then, inexplicably, he went into a coma, which lasted for nearly a month, with him on a ventilator. My dad's neurologist clearly felt I should take him off life support and let him die in peace. For a week I couldn't decide. But the idea of pulling the plug was too much. I had had to do the same thing for my mom, who died of Lou Gehrig's disease, and I couldn't bear to do it again. So I agreed to a tracheotomy and a stomach tube to keep him breathing and getting nourishment.
Two days after the tracheotomy, I read that music can help coma victims, so I played a Linda Ronstadt tape, Canciones de mi Padre, for my dad. Not five minutes later, he opened his eyes for the first time in 22 days! That was in January. Now, four months later, he's making slow progress back. Though he still has the tracheotomy and feeding tube, he is breathing on his own. But the effects of the Aricept are beginning to wane: some days he recognizes me, some days not. He still can't walk. And sometimes he gets so angry at all the tubes, he tries to yank them out. I have no idea what he thinks--if he's happy with me or furious.
Sometimes I think I made the worst decision in the world, condemning him to a life connected to machines; other times the doctors tell me there is a real chance we will be able to reverse the tracheotomy and remove the breathing tube. In the meantime, Medicare has run out, and we're facing a $300-a-day bill for care. At times it seems the horrors will never stop. Then my dad will recognize me, smile an almost childish grin of delight when I say my name, and it all seems worth it.