Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Daddy has dementia

It sounds like the title of a comedy, but it's no joke and it's breaking my heart. My brilliant father, 89 years old, one of the single best human beings I've ever known is losing his mind.

I feel honored to have a father like him: a gifted intellect, a talented scientist of world renown, a man with humor, compassion, kindness, a down to earth sensibility that made him always available, always ready with a helping hand, a listening ear. He's the man who held my tiny hands and "flew" me around on his feet, one of my earliest memories; he's the one who snatched me out of bed at 3 a.m., dashing outside to lift me up so I could suck the cool night air into my croupy lungs. This gentle man taught me to fish, to mix concrete, to plant a garden, to appreciate opera and classical and the old hymns of Martin Luther.

He is the one who stole out in pre-dawn hours to gas up my Toyota as a secret gift before I left for Texas, but who then saw fit to wake me and give me a heartfelt winners v. losers lecture related to the flat spare tire in my trunk. (In case you don't know, a winner ~ even a 19-year-old wild child ~ will always check her tire pressure and the pressure of the spare before embarking upon a 600 mile journey.) In those pre-cell-phone days, the thought of his baby daughter on the road without a spare gave this sweet man the shudders.

He called every morning the five years I lived in Texas, the years I was most commitedly on a path of self destruction and the years in which I ran completely wild. The one thing I did every day other than hit the bars was to make myself available for that phone call. I rolled out of countless strange beds, cut short many a night's party to be available for that critical conversation. The single time I missed it ~ in a four day blackout which began on New Year's Eve of 1976 ~ resulted in his insisting that I provide telephone numbers and names of others who might know where I was if I failed to answer the phone. It seemed almost laughable at the time to send him the names and addresses and phone numbers of a bunch of drunks and political radicals, but I did as he requested and thereafter my friends would occasionally report that my father had called looking for me and, as one said, "he seems like such a nice man, how could he be a Republican?"

I think the disappearance of my mother had a huge impact on his need to always be in touch. Was it codependency? craziness? I don't know and don't care: I do know that he came to get me the moment I called for help. He came without judgment, driving overnight to load me up and rescue me from what had become a very dangerous life. That loving response marked the beginning of a new life for me and I am still grateful. Odd that I think of this as his need, when that daily call and the continuing connection with family anchored me in those stormy years.

I miss so much our long and intense, often emotional, political discussions. That was something I shared with him to the exclusion of my two sisters and his personal history ~ living through the depression, World War II vet, working his way through college and the attainment of three degrees ~ played into our lively and sometimes angry discourse. I miss that, terribly. I miss, too, our unified concern for the environment, for the survival of animals everywhere, our joint rage over the absurdity of cutting the last old growth redwoods, of drilling in the Arctic wilderness. We both rooted for the project to bring back wolves in force to the lower 48 and the tallgrass prairie preserve in our state enchanted us equally.

Most of all I miss his gentle and wide-ranging sense of humor. He is a humble man who has never boasted of his many accomplishments, who diminished the excellence of his education, of his brilliance. He was always quick to note and mark the accomplishments of others, however, and I never saw in him a moment's envy or jealousy.

This daddy ~ southern girls always have daddies, until they die ~ is disappearing one moment, one day at a time. It's worsening now. He is sometimes confused by the television remote, punching buttons and unable to distinguish between that and the phone. He calls repeatedly and each time I answer, because he does not know he's already talked to me and I can't stand the thought that he might wonder why I don't answer. In concert with the diminishment of his memory, he is more emotionally sensitive: my oldest sister was testy with him when he called late one night; that is one thing he did not forget, not for days, and it wounded him deeply.

I want to protect him, I want to excise the calcifications, the white matter from his brain. I can't bear that he will lose his dignity, his sense of self. I. Cannot. Stand. It. I can't bear another call in which he tells me about his dog, the one that doesn't exist. I can hardly stand to look at the beautiful card he sent for my birthday: his formerly perfect, miniature penmanship is large and shaky, with numerous cross-outs and two misspellings. From a man whose grammar and spelling have been perfect all of his life, it's too heart-breaking to go back and read the sweet sentiment in that card. I am crying writing this because while my mother was gone in an instant, gone forever, my father is fading and it is worse, much worse, than her disappearance.

I can eat at this. A pint of ice cream and a half cup of chocolate syrup would ease the pain. I haven't wanted a drink in years, but the comfort that comes from consuming sugar eases the sadness for a moment. It's always there, though: when I wake in the night, it's there; when the phone rings at dawn, it's there; when I see someone on the street who reminds me of him, my heart aches again no matter the distraction of the moment. This underlying pain is a constant and so the need for comfort is always there.

I don't know how this will come out except that everyone dies and he will too. I wish, wish, wish he could die with some part of his essential self intact, I wish that more than anything. The day is soon coming when I will walk into the room and my sweet papa will not know me. There is no comfort for that, no amount of sugar, no drug, no quantity of vodka which will ease that agony. It is the height of selfishness to think of my pain at this time and so I will distract myself, but not with food, not today. I don't think I can bear this in the end, but I will bear it for today and do so without turning to a substance for comfort. Just for today.

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Blogger christie said...

Okay I was SO not ready for this - I cried through this entire entry!!!! Partially because I'm an empathetic person but mostly because I'm so close to my dad and love him so much that I've often worried of this happening to him one day and how I will handle it - or losing him in any way. I just don't think I could do it. I'm so sorry for what you're going through and I wish there was something I could say, but all I can say is that I can almost feel your pain because I know how I will feel when I lose my dad someday. :( What a very powerful entry and I'm sure it will stay with me forever.

August 31, 2006 12:57 AM  
Blogger christie said...

Oh and sorry, didn't mean to not leave my link -

August 31, 2006 12:58 AM  
Blogger Kimberly said...

One day at a time, right?

I know what you mean about barely being able to stand the way it is now, and knowing it will only get worse. That idea, that question of how you will deal with this as time passes, must be awful to think about. Equally awful is the thought of what your father is dealing with.

I don't mean to be presumptuous about what you're going through. I'm a daddy's girl too. It's quite heartbreaking.

August 31, 2006 2:02 AM  
Blogger Cookie said...

This was such a beautiful, loving tribute to your father. It brought tears to my eyes.

August 31, 2006 9:56 AM  
Blogger The unconventional mother said...

My mother died slowly of a brain tumor and she too losts bits of herself. At the end she talked of going out and buying some Coke at the store when she picked me up from school. It helped to know that I was seeing a part of her that was child like. It helped to see and love that child even though I know it hurts to lose the parent. You lose the "parent" before you lose them completely so it is an extended period of mourning. It is tough to lose a little at a time.

Spend as much time appreciating the part of him that is still around...that would be my only bit of unsolicited advice. Because things can change and be gone before you realize it.

August 31, 2006 10:38 AM  
Anonymous Big Fella said...

Spend as much time with him as possible, and be thankful for the lucid moments. I just spent the day at my sister's yesterday, my 87 year old mother was a asleep most of the day, and when she was a awake, she was not lucid. I held her hand and talked to her, but I could not tell if she was aware of me. The doctor has given her a day or two more, I'm just waiting for the phone call.

August 31, 2006 12:18 PM  
Anonymous Lynn said...

I went through this with my grandfather and it was sad. It was also very scary for him--when he did know what was going on. You are doing what you need to do and he is doing what he needs to do. In the end you are together and that is what matters. i am sorry for your pain but am proud of your courage.

August 31, 2006 1:58 PM  
Blogger angelfish24 said...

I'm sorry for your pain and what you and your father are going through. I fear that I too will go through this with my father as he is starting to show the signs. I'm not close with my father like you are though just my mother. With my grandparents at the end of their lives, they didn't remember a great deal of our family but we just spent as much time with them as we could and talked of old times and our feeling for each other and it seemed to help though it was a really difficult time. I wish you well in your difficult situation and offer you a listening ear if you when you need it.

August 31, 2006 2:54 PM  
Blogger Allan said...

I want a pizza now with the Kleenex. That was fun, maybe tomorrow we will get back to the "I let the puppy out this morning" stuff. At least a warning maybe, a headline or something to prep us for that.. Geez...
Hold his hand and be thankful for the time...

August 31, 2006 3:41 PM  
Blogger Sue said...

How sad that this is the first time I have visited your blog, but how honoured I feel to read your beautiful account of your father.

August 31, 2006 4:24 PM  
Blogger Losing Elaine said...

That was a beautiful tribute to your father. Thank-you for sharing a bit of him with us! :-)

September 01, 2006 12:23 PM  
Blogger One fabulous bitch said...

Oh darling, I so feel your pain. My dad had a major, MAJOR stroke at age 50. It happened when he was wrapping my mom's Christmas presents, no less. He went from being the guy who could make anything, fix anything, DO anything (he was an electrician by trade) to someone who can't say my name or my mom's. Considering how bad the stroke was, he did make a good recovery but he'll never be the same, mentally or physically.

I gained 50 lbs the year following his stroke, which is what sent me to WW in the first place. When the ones who once held you up are so helpless, it's no wonder we turn to food, drink, whatever it takes to forget the pain. I admire your strength and I know you're going to be okay.

My thoughts are with you.

September 02, 2006 10:19 AM  
Blogger Melissa said...

I am truly sorry your father is beginning to have dementia. How my heart goes out to him, you and your family because I understand how dementia affects each one of your family. My Oba-san...Japanese for grandmother, is a 110 years old and just began to suffer dementia not so long ago, maybe a year or so. It has gotten so bad that she doesn't know who we are and is not doing her finances any longer. I know she is old, like REALLY old, but there is a part of me who yearns for her younger mind to remember me, my family, and have the ability to do what she had been doing before dementia sent in.

September 13, 2006 9:55 PM  

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