It has been one year since I’ve seen my dad. Twelve months is a long gap between father-daughter visits in even the best of circumstances. And these are not the best of circumstances. My dad is 88 and has dementia. I’m traveling from Chicago to Charleston, South Carolina to visit him at his nursing home and I have no idea what to expect.
The last time I saw him, his jeans hung loosely from his hips and his cheeks sunk in where his dentures should have been. He was thin and toothless. Mentally, the things he’d retained seemed to be rooted in long ago, his more recent history gone. I felt like an archaeologist sifting through the crumbling remains of my father’s psyche, looking for something of worth. I am ever excavating and ever hopeful.
On that trip, I asked him, gingerly, about what he remembered. Any of his wives’ names (one of them my mother)? “Not a one,” he said without remorse. Then he smiled and held up a finger, “Oh, wait, I do remember--they were all named Mrs. Hobson.” He laughed hard, his sense of humor still intact.
Then I asked, needing and wanting it just a little too much, “Do you remember when I was little?” He shook his head quickly, “Lord no.” In that moment my childhood became fixed; he would never add a new detail. By then, he had already lapsed into assuming my brother was his uncle Jack. But he still knew me. He knew me.
Now, one year later, I enter the memory care unit of Dad’s sixth nursing home in three years (due to evictions for attempted escapes, fights, and romantic interludes), and see my father at the end of a long corridor. His belly is round and he is smiling, teeth intact. It’s encouraging. As I start down the hall, he looks up and catches sight of me. With each step I take, his expression softens. By the time I reach him, fat tears are channelling his wrinkles.
He says, “Oh my, you’re beautiful,” then takes my hand and adds, “I’d know you anywhere.” I exhale the breath I didn’t even realize I’d been holding. We sit like that for a bit, hand-holding in silence while he gazes lovingly at me. A nurse happens by and says, “Why Bill, who’s this pretty lady with you?” Dad beams and pulls me close then says, “It’s my sister.”
And there it is: heartbreak.
He believes he has no children. I’m not his daughter because she doesn’t exist yet. In prior trips, I have found Dad’s pendulum in time to be ever-moving. Sometimes it’d swing to his working years with him selling medical equipment at the very nursing home he lived (and complaining about the long hours) then other times he’d think his fellow residents were passengers on the same train heading home from war. He has been a boy and a pilot, a soldier and a businessman. Now I find that the pendulum has stilled. He is static--resolutely young and in the service. He doesn’t yet know who he’ll marry but he wants kids someday so he’s hoping someone will have him. His whole life is ahead; he’s eager and sunny.
In my sorrow, I also feel a little envy. Imagine being elderly yet feeling the hopefulness of the young. In a recent conversation with a friend, I posed the question: would you rather have a sharp mind and a spent body or unmoored memories and your health? She pointed out that the first is harder for you while the latter is much more difficult for the others in your life. As my dad sits happily and I sulk, I have to agree with her.
In some ways, my dad’s dementia is like reverse karma. He has done many things I’m sure he’d rather not relive. He has cut off communication with his children for long periods of time out of stubbornness. He has bilked friends of their savings. He has married four times, each ending badly. For him, these things have disappeared. Those of us with keen memories are left chock full of unresolved emotions leading up to the final insult of being forgotten altogether. It’s bleak.
And yet, there are moments of clarity--even insight--that are heartening. There is new information to be had. For example, at one point, Dad registers shock at the number of years (ten) that I’ve lived in the Chicago area. He says, “If I were in one place for that long I’d...,” as he holds up his fingers in the shape of a gun and points it at his temple. When I ask why he’d want to move around so much, he says, “When you stay in one place too long, people really get to know you.”
It’s the clearest--and only--explanation I’ve ever been given of my circus childhood of relocating from town to town. Then, just as quickly, that moment is followed by nonsense with, “That’s why the Army is perfect for me.”
Time stands still in a nursing home. It feels like I live a whole day in an hour. The nurses talk to each other; the residents mostly sit quietly. One woman thinks I’m her daughter and is thrilled that I’m here to visit her. Another woman shouts at me, “What?! Who did you say just died?” The television drones. Residents nap sitting up; their heads loll as Dean Martin rolls out old tropes like, “I packed light for this trip; I left my wife at home.” Ba-dum-bum.
I can’t bear to stay for meals but I do bring Dad ice cream from the drugstore around the corner and butterscotch oatmeal cookies from home. Before my trip, I did what I always do--I baked. I made my father homemade cookies. I wanted something that would evoke his childhood and cookies seem to exist in that magic place before adolescence. Why don’t we see cookies on our grown-up dessert menus? In preparing Baking Illustrated’s classic oatmeal cookies, I decided to leave out the raisins in consideration of the fact that on my last visit dad had lost his teeth.
Dad is thrilled with my efforts. He sits at a table against a backdrop wallpaper depicting a jaunty french cafe scene, the Seine rendered in blue brush strokes over his shoulder. Between sloppy spoonfuls of ice cream and the crunch of cookies, he peppers me with the same questions over and over. Granted, he thinks he’s asking these of his sister but he’s an attentive audience nonetheless. How many kids do I have? What are they like? How’s my “old man” (meaning my husband but invariably reminding me of himself)? Am I happy?
It’s exhausting to keep rehashing my same responses, but something happens in the repetition. As I describe my daughter as a hoot (a little girl who can’t leave a room without a wiggle and who can’t resist “helping” when she sees work happening) and my son as a card (an overtly loving boy with big thoughts and a quick wit), I start to miss them intensely. I talk about my husband and long for him too. I feel a welling of gratefulness that I am too busy in the day-to-day to notice. I realize how happy I really am.
Take this trip. I stay in a quiet hotel room by myself. I sleep in. I write at a local coffee shop. I have iced raw oysters and a cold beer at a bar while paging through a magazine. Any mom will recognize these experiences for what they are: pure luxury. In fact, I once accidentally referred to an upcoming Charleston trip as “my vacation” to my husband. (I quickly retracted it lest it be counted against my down time in the cosmic tally of parenting).
On each visit, I also share a meal with my brother. Prior to Dad’s illness, we had been on the outs for so long that we were like strangers across the table. But gradually, trip after trip, that has changed and I find us connecting in new ways. In Charleston, I have one man who’s getting to know me and another who’s forgetting me. It’s a beginning and an ending. My visits have come to represent an opportunity to reflect, to rejuvenate, and to grow. I’ve come to realize that these trips aren’t for my father anymore; they are for me.
Dad finishes his dessert. I pat his swollen belly and comment that it feels full of cookies and ice cream. He responds with, “No, but I’d like it to be.” Just like that, the treats are gone and so is his memory of them. When I walk through the double doors out into the sunshine, it will feel to my father as if I was never there at all.