Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What Stays

What Stays

Not that I like to start anything off in a negative way, but I can tell you what doesn’t stay. The hugs. My father’s dementia has taken his strong and all enveloping hugs from me which is the one thing that would probably get me through this. Without them, I am at sea at every visit. I am not sure what was hello and what was goodbye. I grab for the hugs, holding him tight to me until I feel his balance go, and then I release him and stare at my feet a second until the stinging in my eyes subsides. Not that we hide the tears from each other. We know this is the saddest, slow death.
What I find remarkable in this time of slow deterioration is what stays. He still wants to tell everyone how to get here or go there. He wants to run the show as he did his whole adult life in politics, news, and in finance. It is just the logistics. He no longer has opinions in what his children do, just wants to know what they are doing. He remains wary of crazy boys- now in the form of grandsons rather than his own 4 sons. He remains delighted in his granddaughters, doting on them as he does me, his only girl. 
He has always loved females. He has always loved when they grew into women of power. One of his proudest days was when I was accepted to Mount Holyoke College. My parents wanted nothing more than for me to go there. My father has worked with amazing women who graduated from that women’s college and had told me to work hard and get there (much to my disinterest at the time). One day, while helping to pack up my parents’ house, I came across a box of old photographs with some very recognizable people. There were a few shots of an older woman who was clearly important in the series of photographs. We all were trying to figure out who she was so we could make notes on the back of the photos. I finally took a picture over to my dad who was gazing out from his rocking chair and asked him who she was. He looked at her and his eyebrows shot up. He struggled at the recall and finally said, quite loudly, “Mount Holyoke! Mount Holyoke!” My mom then was able to put together that it was Frances Perkins, a graduate from the college. “Yes!”, he said, relieved. “Yes.”
What stays is my father's ability to work a situation out in 3 questions. Often when we go somewhere, he is no longer certain what his role is there. At a big gathering, he might think he is there to give a speech or guide someone else through their presentation. He will ask someone around him three questions to assess where he is and what the purpose is so he can formulate a speech accordingly. For example, at a gymnastic meet watching one of his granddaughters, he will often ask me the same questions. ¨What is it that drives you to be here today? Everyone here seems to be happy and on the same page. Do you find you are all united in this event? What do you hope to ḧave accomplished when this day is over?¨ With that, he goes inside his head again, fingers picking at his cuticles, often elbows on his knees as he looks between his feet, thinking, formulating, creating the words to be given. He will suddenly pop back out of his head and turn and smile at me, the job completed. The speech never delivered.
What he abandons is any pretense of healthy eating. He will eat any pastry, pie, and bowl of ice cream put before him. Very little else interests him but treats. I love it. I love to bring him eclairs and cookies. When he comes to these gymnastics meets, I sit beside him with a bag of snacks I pulled together for my kids to which I have added his favorites: whoppers, m&ms, and wheat thins. He has fallen for cheddar jack cheez-its and peanut butter crackers upon finding them in the bag. Just like the fulfillment I would get watching my children eat a healthy dinner, I feel pride in making my father eat and eat and eat. He smiles with a new snack he reaches for. He will then stop and ask what I am eating. No matter the diet or restriction I have put upon myself, I will grab something to eat. He smiles and reaches in the bag for something new for himself, too.
Selfishly I will share that I stay. I love hearing “kitty kat”, his endearment for me when I enter the room. He knows my voice on the phone and his voice fills as he talk to me. He knows that he loves me even during the times when he can’t quite place me. He might express the wish that I be a part of his family. When he learns that I am, my heart rushes with the look of sheer joy that bursts from his face. When I am a total stranger to him, he still will sit near me to make small talk instead of leaving the room. I stay. I don’t know for how much longer.
My mom stays. He isn’t always certain who she is and often even sees her as two people in the apartment at once. She can be his wife while a nice woman is also cooking in the kitchen for them...which was my mom, 10 minutes earlier. She might be his mom. She might be a kind stranger with whom he can talk about his girlfriend- my mom with her maiden name. I think she is also familiar enough to him that he needs her, and only her, to help him with everything no matter who he thinks she is.

This has all changed. No more gymnastics outings. Not as many grandkid visits. More confusion and fewer smiles.
But he stays.
My father stays in the words of wisdom that come to me in a hard moment. He is in the drive I feel to do more in my work and in my writing. He stares out at me in all the smiling photos I am collecting and keeping around me. He stays in funny stories we all share. He stays in a mist weighing down my heart until I visit him. The mist lifts at any moment of clarity we share and any eye contact that is made. But it returns. This sadness.
Because that stays, too.

And now he is gone.
And that stays the longest.