My father began to leave us, mentally, two years ago. We were looking at photos on my mother’s computer when he pointed to his granddaughter on screen and called her his Aunt. My mother, brother, his wife and I looked at each other aware we’d heard the slip, but we colluded not to hear it. Or at least to leave a sliver of doubt.
For the past two years there’s been no doubt. My 92-year-old father has dementia. He speaks less each time I see him, which is about once a month. He can whisper a few words but it’s a great effort.
Last year when I would visit, my mother would coach him, “Your daughter Riva is coming today.” By time I arrived it seemed to stick; he seemed to know who I was. Now little sticks. We spent last weekend together yet he didn’t know who I was until Sunday night. He walked into the kitchen, smiled, and said pointing to my mother, “Your mother making dinner.”
In that moment he identified us both. For he no longer knows my mother either.
Last year he thought she was his sister and worried every night that she wasn’t leaving in time to get home safely. Now he asks me with a lopsided grin, “Who is that?,” shaking his head forlornly. He doesn’t know his wife of sixty-five years who now bathes him, dresses him, cuts his food, ties his shoes. The woman who found him going through the kitchen drawers at 4 AM holding a hammer, pliers and knife looking for more tools; his tooth was bothering him and he was going to fix it. The woman who had to put an alarm on the front door for fear he will open it and walk away. And had to put an alarm around her own neck in case something should happen to her. For then, what will become of him?
It breaks my heart every time I see him. Not because he doesn’t know who I am, I don’t care. But because I am falling in love with the father I grew up hating. And now there is precious little time left to have this love affair. It is starting as it is ending.
My father was diagnosed with clinical depression when he was fifty-five. Until then he was angry, moody, sullen and self-absorbed. He was not the father who takes you to ball games or ice-skating. He was not the father who asks at the dinner table, “How was school?” Or when I came home from Europe, “How was your trip?” He was the father who once home from work sat in the living room, silent, with a book and a drink. He was the father I experienced as emotionally absent and whose depression made him also at times emotionally abusive.
I knew the story of his own childhood. Two of his three brothers both died when they were sixteen years old. One from tuberculosis the other from an accidental fall while climbing a rope in the school gym. My father’s mother never recovered from the loss. So she doted on her youngest child, my Aunt Shirley, the only girl in the family. My father became lost in the shuffle and for years wished he was Shirley.
When my father was put on depression medication it took away the anger. It also took away any emotional vibrancy. The dementia has similarly kept him docile, but added a sweetness I have never known before. Sweet, vulnerable and helpless is a wicked mixture; it will break your heart.
My father spends his time sitting on the couch staring at the TV screen but takes little in. He often looks at me as if to say, ‘Who are you?’, ‘Why are you here?’, ‘What am I meant to do now?” An avid reader his whole life, he picks up a book from the side table, flips the pages, but takes nothing in. He wanders across the living room to the window and stares at a rock or a leaf or a candy wrapper outside. He wants to go and tend it, until my mother calls him back to the couch.
Each time I see him he has lost more ability to speak, hear, comprehend, do. As my physician assistant friend said, “His body is outliving his mind.” Yes, that is exactly so. He no longer understands why my mother calls him to the dinner table, or puts his jacket on him to go outside, or lifts him off the couch to get into the car so they can return me to the train station. But he goes along like a baby lamb following its mother. So that when he looks at me and smiles, trusting me for no reason, my heart breaks. These days all I want to do is stroke his cheek, take his hand or put mine over his heart.
It is cruel that God has made me fall in love with my father after sixty-one years. When I use to think about his passing, I thought I would miss him from time to time but no big deal. Now I am already devastated.
Getting out of the car at the train station I reach into the front seat. I take his hand and say, “I love you.” He turns as best he can, looks at me and says, “I love you.” My mother startled says, “Did he just say I love you?” He says it again, “I love you.” I get out of the car, reach into the front window where he is sitting, put my hand over his heart and he says it a third time, “I love you.”
I don’t expect you’ll be here dad next year for Father’s Day. But I’ll tell you again this Sunday, “I love you.” And now I know I always will.