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Her Father Experienced The Heavenly Wonder of Nature

Diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, he basked in the beauty of God’s natural world and always found something to appreciate.

Illustration by Michael Crampton

”Beautiful,” Papa said, gazing out the patio door.

I went over to see what his eyes were fixed on. I looked out at the yard. The grass needed mowing. Two soccer balls and a football had been left outside. I need to fill our tank before picking up the kids, I reminded myself. But what exactly was Papa remarking on? The sun’s early morning rays darted across the lawn. The dew sparkled. I guessed that was it.

Papa had a special relationship with nature. He always found something there to appreciate. A white thunderhead off in the distance. Birds darting about the trees. A field of grain blowing in the wind. Little things I barely even noticed captured his fancy and filled him with joy. He’d been that way since I was a kid.

“Beautiful,” he would say about a view we’d seen a hundred times before. “Lovely.”

But the man looking out the patio door with me now wasn’t the same father I’d grown up with. Diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at 52, he’d moved in with my husband and me and our four children. This Papa forgot names and words. We didn’t leave him at home alone for fear he would become anxious or have an accident.

Sometimes it felt as if the real Papa was gone forever, taken from me far too soon. But in those moments when he stood admiring the sun on the grass, or watching the wind blow through the trees, I knew the old Papa I’d loved all my life was still in there. For now, at least, I hadn’t lost my father completely.

I didn’t have the time Papa had always found to keep track of nature’s intricacies. The kids’ busy schedules kept my eyes on our family calendar of events and doctor appointments. Before I knew it this day had flown by, and it was time to pick my daughter up from after-school swim practice. Papa and the boys took a ride with me to the pool. My daughter climbed in back with her towel, damp and smelling of chlorine, happily chatting with her brothers while Papa sat quiet in the passenger seat.

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I followed the road home, thinking about starting dinner. If I got the chicken in the oven right away, I could mix up a batch of cookies for dessert. Jon could get started on his science project at the table….

I turned the wheel, rounded a corner and caught my breath. The road at this spot curved between two lakes. The setting sun cut an orange swath across the water, setting everything asparkle. I’d driven this road lots of times, at this very hour of the day. How often had I automatically pulled down the sun visor to shield my eyes from the brightness? Today I took it all in—the sun, the water, the sky. I was struck by the scene as if by lightning. The feeling was so unexpected. So stunning. So…

“Beautiful,” said Papa.

This is what Papa sees, I thought. This is what he sees all the time. Finally I got a glimpse of God’s world through Papa’s eyes, and it was glorious.

In the last year of his life, Papa moved into a facility where he could get round-the-clock care. When we visited, which we did often, we sat on the back porch, where there was a bird feeder in the trees. Papa didn’t always recognize us, and could no longer speak full sentences. But he could watch the birds and the wind in the trees. While he basked in the beauty of God’s natural world, I remembered how the sun set on those lakes. I had no doubt that Papa still experienced God’s nearness, a God who was clearly visible in the world around him. Just as the Papa I loved was clearly visible to me.

Papa is gone now, surrounded by the unfathomable beauty of heaven. But I often feel him near, especially at the spot where I saw through his eyes for the first time. Whenever my car rounds that curve between two lakes, no matter what else is on my mind, I take a fresh look and say, “Beautiful.” Papa’s joy is mine too.

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