This time of year always reminds me of the day I lost my father in Crossgates Mall. It was the first Saturday in December and I wanted to do a little Christmas shopping. Al loved to shop and be around people, so it was the perfect place to take him. It was fairly early, about 10 am when we got there, so the mall wasn’t yet crowded. I had to use the Ladies room, and as I did so many times before in all kinds of places, I sent Al into the Men’s room while I went to the Ladies room. Each and every time I did this, I prayed that he would recognize the facilities and take the time to use them, so I had enough time to do what I needed to do. It worked like a charm every single time, except this one.
I was in the bathroom for about 60 seconds. I was ultra-efficient at this…I had to be! I always wanted to be out waiting for Dad instead of the other way around, for fear he wouldn’t remember he was with me, and wander off. But this day, he must have just turned around when I turned my back, and he walked away. Not knowing this, I came out of the Ladies room and stood outside for a few minutes watching man after man come out of the Men’s room and walk away.
I began to pace as a few more minutes went by. I caught the attention of the next man who came by to use the bathroom and asked him if he would check for a man in his early 70’s who was wearing a black fedora hat and two pairs of sunglasses. He couldn’t miss him! He understood his assignment, and went into a search and rescue mode. I paced some more, wringing my hands. When the man reappeared, my heart sank. I could tell by the look on his face that a man fitting that description wasn’t in there. He confirmed my suspicions. I gasped and mumbled “He has Alzheimer’s! I have to find him!” and I ran away…looking for the Security office and scanning for Al at the same time.
I found the office upstairs, stormed in, and blurted out “I lost my father!” The officer made a joke out of it by saying “Oh, really…you lost your father, Huh.” I was taken aback by his reply and yelled “He has Alzheimer’s! I need to find him as soon as possible!”
Thankfully, he changed his speed and attitude at that moment, and the questioning began:
Officer: What’s his name?
Me: Al Fiore
Officer: What is he wearing?
Me: A black fedora hat and 2 pairs of sunglasses
Officer: 2 Pairs of sunglasses?
Me: YES! You can’t miss him!
Officer: How old is he and how much does he weigh?
Me: He’s 73 years old and he’s 6 foot tall and thin. I don’t know his weight…he’s tall and thin!
Officer: Does he know his name?
Me: Yes…he absolutely knows his name.
Officer: Is he carrying any packages?
Me: Not yet! But he has been known to swipe things since his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. I’m afraid he’ll go into a store and walk out with a new outfit and be tackled by Security Thugs! I’m really worried…we have to find him as soon as possible!
The officer then instructed me to get back out into the mall and look for him while he put out a “mall and mall grounds APB.” He told me he would page me (I didn’t have a cell phone back then) if he found my father. I hurried back out into the mall and was walking and scanning as fast as I could. I was trying to think of where he’d go, knowing that anywhere was game. I also decided that he would have stayed on the level of the mall where we began. So I concentrated my efforts on that level. The mall is huge, and this was like looking for a needle in a haystack, especially if he went into one of the stores.
All of a sudden, I heard my name being paged to return to security. I ran through the mall and up the escalator, thinking that Al was found. Out of breath, I looked around in the office and said “Where’s my father?” He told me that they found a man outside who was wearing a baseball cap, no sunglasses, and said his name was Ed, and wanted to know if this could be my father. I said that he was absolutely not my father! I was thinking that it was possible that he may have swiped a baseball cap and was wearing it, but he would have never come up with the name “Ed”.
I pleaded with the officer to continue their efforts, reiterating the importance of finding him ASAP. Thoughts were going through my head that he would leave the mall and get hit by a car, fall in a ditch, freeze to death, etc. I also went over in my head how I would tell my mother that I lost him. And I considered the media coverage that would follow. It was all dreadful to think about. I felt responsible for him, and a little responsible for him being lost. I tried not to go there in my head…I needed to stay focused.
The officer instructed me to walk the mall with him. He asked me again to describe Al. I told him again…”He’s wearing a black fedora hat and two pairs of sunglasses! You can’t miss him!”
So, we set out together and decided to search the lower level. I was walking along at a fast pace, the officer trying to keep up with me, when we both spotted him at the exact time. There he was, standing in front Mrs. Field’s Cookies! I ran up to him and yelled “AL!” He looked so relieved to see me. I said to the officer…”See, you really can’t miss him in this get-up!” I thanked the officer, and he went on his way.
I got the Mrs. Field’s associate’s attention and asked if Al had ordered a cookie. Dad loved sweets and cookies. The clerk said “Yes, he asked for a cookie, but he doesn’t have any money.” I said “No, he doesn’t but I do…I’ll take that huge cookie over there and a soda, please.” I ordered the biggest cookie in the case.
One more small dilemma followed. I was more than ready to leave the mall at this point, but Al wasn’t. He always followed me, sometimes needing a little prompt, but this time, he wouldn’t budge. I finally realized that he was very upset about being lost. It told me that he still had some awareness and understanding when things didn’t seem right to him. It took me about five minutes to convince him to walk away with me. I did this by engaging him in a little fun dance. As soon as he started moving his dance feet, I put my arm around him and directed him into the middle of the mall corridor, and we were on our way.
It was still early in the day, but we were both exhausted from the ordeal. I took him home to my house, and we both got comfortable in the living room and napped. When I dropped him off at home that night, I was thrilled to be telling my mother this story with a happy ending, rather than this being a news story.
I never sent him in the men’s room again while I visited the Ladies room. From then on, when I had to use public facilities, I always found approachable people, who agreed to stay with him while I left for 60 seconds. I’m grateful to all of the people who weren’t afraid to spend a minute with a stranger with Alzheimer’s.