I am an early member of an ever-growing club: people who are simultaneously caring for young children and their aging parents. It’s a group commonly referred to as the “sandwich generation.” In fact, my first blog idea was to be titled “I am the Ham” and would have explored the challenges that come with that sort of membership. Most of my friend’s parents are a solid twenty years younger than my dad so they haven’t started the juggling act that is worrying about preschool and nursing home placement at the same time.
My dad turned 87 in January and, until a few years ago, was happily ensconced in a Florida retirement community that featured a snoozing guard/resident at the front gate and silk tulips appearing to grow from the sand around each mobile home. Dad had his physical health, a dog, and a “lady friend.” It was his mental decline into dementia that landed him in a nursing home in Charleston, South Carolina near my oldest half-brother from my dad’s first marriage (whew, it’s complicated). I visit him twice a year—more frequently than I did when he had his wits about him—and am well aware that there are days ahead when he won’t recognize me at all.
For each visit, I pack photos of my kids and a little bit of hope; this time I’ll also be taking along a home-baked goodie prepared with my daughter. Our choices are complicated by: what he might like, what I can reasonably travel with, and what’s left in this chapter of Baking Illustrated. Zucchini bread it is. There is an extended bit in the cookbook about how zucchini bread represents some sort of summer tradition of sharing with neighbors. No one has ever showed up on my doorstep with a zucchini loaf so that reference seems out-dated. Then again, so is my father—this starts to feel like a perfect match.
As we assemble the ingredients, my daughter busies herself with sneaking small handfuls of the pecans we’ve already measured. I shred the zucchini and start wondering why we would put this vegetable in bread to begin with. With each pass of the grater I get a little more disdainful of the idea. I like carrot cake, sure, but carrots have their own natural sweetness and then we make good better by topping it with cream cheese icing. Zucchini bread doesn’t appeal at all; I become relieved that it’ll be a gift. Perhaps that’s why these loaves are given away with such reported frequency? I feel certain that Dad will be grateful for anything not prepared in the nursing home kitchen which mostly serves up canned veggies, canned fruits and even canned noodles (haven’t you wondered how Chef Boyardi stays in business?).
As always before these trips, I am unsure of what state I will find my father in. Will he be packing his bag for his long-gone childhood home or talking of the rigors of testing military planes for the war? The records of his memories are scratched and warped—the needle drops at random. Things have ceased to be linear for him; he is living all of his selves at once.
The father I knew was: a sentimental, witty letch. He cried at the usual things—graduations, my wedding, the birth of his grandkids—but also when I tried on a powder blue, square-collared homecoming dress and stood in the circle of dressing room lights. His ability to truly live in each moment gave him an appreciation for the fact that they were passing by. The ladies loved Dad, not because of his financial status (he had none) or looks (average) but because of his smart comebacks. He kept them, and me, laughing. He had an easy way with women, striking up conversations in waiting rooms and calling every waitress by name—though I knew that was partly because he’d glimpsed their nametags while checking out their chests. I’m not sure we ever passed a female cyclist without Dad honking his horn in appreciation.
I wonder how much of his true nature will be diminished by dementia. I do know that recently he has been in some trouble. As my brother put it—delicately for his younger sister’s ears—“Dad was getting his blood pressure taken and when the nurse leaned over, he saw some low-hanging fruit and, um, tried to pick it.” That sounds like Dad all right; I cross my fingers and hope that some of his more endearing traits are intact too.
The next morning as I ready for my trip, my daughter and I wrap the bread in saran wrap then foil. She hands it to me and says, “Tell Papi I love him.” Now I am the sentimental one, tearing at the idea that my daughter will never really know the man who raised me. It feels like the circle has been interrupted.
In Charleston, I go straight to the nursing home from the airport. I sign in and have to wander around a bit, zucchini bread in tow, before I find my father. He is slumped in a chair near, but not watching, a television that’s blaring some low-rent talk show with desperate characters that will surely break into a fist fight at any moment. It’s been six months since I’ve seen Dad and the only way to describe him is this: old. He has looked youthful for so many years that it’s a shock to suddenly realize that he is, in fact, elderly. Not helping the situation, I notice when he smiles at me, is the fact that his upper teeth are missing. No one can pull that off without looking geriatric. If my seven-year old lost all of his teeth at once, his lips would pucker and shrink and you’d turn on “Murder She Wrote” for him.
Dad smiles his gummy smile takes a good look at me. He describes me as both “not big as a minute” and “cute as a button.” He shakes his head and smiles then it happens—tears fill his eyes. “Damn,” he says and shakes his head again, his expression wistful. He is likely thinking that suddenly I’m a woman and when did that happen and how did he miss it? He’s comparing me to some other memory he’s recently had—maybe of my metal skates scratching up and our concrete drive, or my cheerleading tryout (and failure) when I was all knees and elbows, or when I was kissing a boy on our front stoop and leaned against the doorbell causing Dad to swing the door open and catch us.
We sit for a while talking. Our conversations are circular; we cover the same topics over and over. Where I live. How many kids I have. One of each, right? And so on. I unwrap the bread and break off a piece for him. He takes a bite then realizes that he can’t chew the nuts without his teeth. He swallows dryly. “I’ll have some when I get my teeth back,” he assures. After a few hours, I leave for the day, re-wrapped zucchini bread in hand. On my way out, I ask the nurse to track down his choppers.
The next day, I return, toting the now two-day-old bread like it’s some sort of good luck charm. I see Dad, still toothless. He’s in physical therapy doing leg lifts and bargaining with the nurse that he’ll do five more for a soda. “Water,” she corrects. Soda, he smiles. I decide to run out and get him a treat. I bring back nice, soft ice cream. He eats it like a junkyard dog—fast and messy. A few minutes later the nurse comes in and announces that Dad’s teeth have been located in the laundry and that he’ll have them back by dinner. Things are looking up.
I turn to Dad and speak to him in an exaggerated way so that my meaning is not missed—it’s the way I speak to my children when they leave their clothes on the floor or dirty plates on the table. The lines are crossing; I am daughter and mother now. “Okay, you’re getting your teeth back. It’s important that you hang on to them. You know,” I joke, “they kind of come in handy for eating.” He nods obediently. I explain how I discipline my kids with time outs and how they have to stay on the step for the number of minutes as they are years old. “My daughter is four and has to sit for four minutes. How long do you think you’ll be in time out for if you lose those teeth again?” Dad looks up, appearing to calculate, then deadpans, “A month.”
And there he is, the father I know. He seems to have been boiled down to his essence by his disease. In between the confused lapses which he describes as “scary,” he still cries and jokes and leers (poor nurses).
Just then, an attractive white-haired woman wheels herself into Dad’s room. “How’s it going?” she asks. “It’s going,” Dad replies. “What are you up to?” she wants to know. He says, “Anything and everything.” These are the types of exchanges that pass for conversation in the nursing home. I decide that now is as good a time as any to head out for the day. “Be back tomorrow,” I tell him. I take the zucchini loaf under my arm—maybe tomorrow I think. I have all sorts of hope for tomorrow.
When I wake the next day, my final day in Charleston, I am met with aches and chills. I am sick. It’s the kind of all-consuming sickness that makes you nostalgic for past physical activities. As I lie in bed, I think, “Remember when I used to be able to climb stairs? And walk from the den to the kitchen? Yeah, that was nice.”
It becomes clear that I won’t be able to see Dad again on this trip. I feel like things are unfinished; it’s easy to feel this way with a full loaf of bread sitting on my nightstand. I call the nursing home and they tell me that Dad is busy eating lunch with his teeth. I am bolstered.
Early the next morning, I weakly pack my bag and feel sorry that I won’t see my father again for six months. Then I realize that I left him in the best possible way—with a kiss on the cheek and a pretty woman in his room. I toss the zucchini bread in the trash and head home.