My journey started on 4 May 2011, the day I buried my father. My parents divorced when I was fourteen and ever since my Dad and I had a strained relationship. When I was a little boy he worked so hard. At times he had two jobs and crazy hours, but always had time for me. I remember how he would pick me up after school and go back to work. Then he’d come home to help me with homework in the evenings and have to work again.
After high school, I left for Miami on a modeling contract and spent the next ten years abroad. This meant we hardly ever saw each other. During those ten years, I think I called him once on his birthday. He never called me. I slowly closed my heart to him and we drifted apart completely. I often thought how I would feel, if I lost him one day. I convinced myself I would be fine and truly believed that. What was he adding to my life? Nothing.
A few months before he died I heard he wasn’t well. I felt sad for him and his wife and hoped he wasn’t in pain but that was about all. Then one day I was in my car and a Luther Vandross song came on the radio, “Dance With My Father”. Half way through the song I realised I had tears running down my face. My heart was so sore I could hardly breathe. I had to see him. His wife Hazel said he wasn’t doing well and if I could visit him, it would mean the world to him.
When I arrived at his door I was a nervous wreck with no idea what to expect. He had Alzheimer’s. Did that mean he wouldn’t remember me? To my surprise he answered. In a second the hugest smile came over his face and immediately relaxed me. Over the next half hour we spoke about everything. He slipped in and out of conversations, but amazingly, was still aware he had lost track of what he was talking about. He would apologize and ask what we were talking about. After prompting he’d be off passionately talking with a huge smile.
I noticed his arms. The skin tone, texture, leanness - they were my arms, exactly the same. We had the same nose, same eyes and same ears. Even our lips were similar. I was looking at myself. In that moment I realised he was just a man, like me, doing the best he could. I reminisced on my childhood memories and all the great things about him. How he coached baseball and was so proud when I made the Western Province team in the same position he held thirty years before.
We ended our visit promising to see more of each other. We hugged. Really hugged! With love. I barely made it around the corner, before I broke down and wept. Regret filled every inch of my body and I promised myself I would be a better son.
Less than two weeks later he was admitted to Constantiaberg Hospital. There were complications with his Alzheimer’s medication. I rushed there and remember walking past his room, seeing him, but not recognising him. In less than two weeks he had transformed into a sick old man even I didn’t recognize.
When I walked into his hospital room, he turned, looked at me and said, “My boy is here”. I can’t think about this without crying. As I write this two years later, tears are running down my face.
My father never recovered. For the next six weeks I was by his side. After the first week he lost consciousness and never opened his eyes again. I watched him suffer, more than any human deserves to suffer. I prayed that I could take on my father’s pain. The final twenty-nine hours was a nightmare. His pain intensified. All I could do was rub his body and whisper to him that I loved him. Did he know I loved him? I repeated it, over and over again. “I love you Dad!” At 1am on 30 April, in my arms, my father slipped away.
The evening of his funeral I went for a run. Let me make it clear, I hated running. It was painful and tiring. Somehow though, it allowed me to tap into my pain. It started with the physical pain of my legs aching and my lungs burning then went to my heart and soul, devastated by his loss. I ran every evening for the next two weeks.
When I think back two years ago, I wonder how I made it through. I lost my father, my fiancée and my business. I was stripped bare and had a year filled with therapy, antipsychotic medication and trying to figure out: “why am I here?”
But this story doesn’t have a sad ending. This is the background to my mission of making people aware of Alzheimer’s. A disease I knew very little about before my father’s passing. I have resolved to take on endurance events around the world to support Alzheimer’s South Africa - a truly wonderful charity that was there for me when I had no one to speak to.
The Alzheimer’s Memorial Challenge was created with the help of my dear friend WP van Zyl, and is a non-stop run from Pretoria to Cape Town in tribute to Ivan Meihuizen. Our team is fortunate to be sponsored by the Sports Science Institute and Inner Armour.
did you know?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive and terminal illness with no cure which affects close to one million people in South Africa. It generally affects people 65 years of age and older, and sufferers need full-time care when the disease reaches advanced stages. Added to the emotional trauma for the families of sufferers, there is the high cost of care and drugs to treat the symptoms.
The Alzheimer's Memorial Challenge
On September 13, 2013, six runners will complete a non-stop run from Pretoria to Cape Town to raise funds and awareness for Alzheimer’s disease. The group passes through Bloemfontein and finishes their epic journey by running the Cape Town Marathon on September 22 (the day after International Alzheimer’s Day).Runners have been recruited not for their running ability, but for their courage and passion.