Saturday, December 26, 2009
Dementia: Moments of Grace
For those in my age category of slightly over 60, losing your parents is something you’re probably familiar with. My family just passed our second Christmas without my folks.
Shortly after my mom died of cancer last year just before the holidays, my father, a frail but otherwise healthy eighty-five year old, simply came undone. He couldn’t tie his shoes. He didn’t remember if he’d eaten lunch that day or not. He’d spend long moments in silent conversation with his brother who had died years prior.
It was my siblings’ and my job to find whatever version of reality in which he currently existed and join him there. Phone calls and visits would often end in tears (ours) and placid detachment (his).
There were moments of tiny miracles, periods of grace, a lifting of the fog:
“Hello, Dad? It’s Jody.”
“Oh? Well, how are you?”
I pause, not falling for the new trick. Anyone else might be suckered into continuing the conversation. He used to compensate for his hearing loss by nodding and smiling. People actually thought he had heard and agreed with them.
“Dad, do know who this is?”
“Uh, I believe you said…”
“It’s your eldest, Jody, your daughter, in California,” I reel off the qualifiers that might jog what’s left of his precarious memory. Swiss cheese, his doctor explained. Some things fall right on through; some things stick. I’ve fallen through this time. My heart hurts though I’ve learned not to take it personally.
“My daughter?” the holes reduce to colander size.
“Oh, well Jody, how are you sweetie? What are you up to today?”
There he is; there’s my Dad. I breathe fully for the first time in minutes. Tears puddle behind my eyes. If I were there, we’d both be crying now, he in frustration with the fathomless fog that separates him from his family, and me in the sweet agony of capturing fleeting moments of my father.
We talk a while about family, work, those things of the moment. Then I refer back to the past where the fluidity of his mind is more able to find a rock on which to anchor. I remind him of a time when I was eight years old and I won a game chest for writing the best essay in the ‘My Pops Is Tops’ category of a contest sponsored by a local magazine. My Dad has always been my hero. I remind him of this and hear his soft chuckle.
“If there’s a bright side to all this,” he said as we were winding up the conversation, “it’s that I get to discover over and over again that I have a daughter who loves me.” A tear slid down my cheek. “It’s like unwrapping the best Christmas present, without having to wait until—when is it that we have Christmas?”
“December, Dad,” I smile.
“I knew that. I was just testing you. Love you, honey. Call again soon. Ten, fifteen minutes should do,” he chuckled.
“Love you, Dad. Bye.”
This memory is in honor of my Dad who died just short of his 86th birthday.