My father forgot himself. Like a lost key or that other sock that never finds its way into the bureau drawer, the Alzheimer's that slowly robbed his mind of the details of his life left nothing but shadow. I first knew him there in the shadows.
The psych ward was a motley mixture of drug addicts, alcoholics and attempted suicides who stood in doorways, stared out windows and mumbled things incomprehensible to the nurses who gently placed pills into waiting mouths and offered compassion beyond the ability to receive. My father was there among them in a chair facing the TV. A baseball game was on, but he wasn't watching it.
His head drooped chin to chest, and a bit of drool dripped from the corner of his mouth like tears falling into his lap. I knew him then. I knew him by what he wasn't anymore. In this, his great forgetting, I remembered him and knew him.
I remembered the smell of steaks searing on the grill and the sound of his laughter drifting up to my bedroom window like a glory cloud. I remembered he and I getting up at 4 a.m., loading sandwiches, Thermos bottles full of coffee and finally ourselves into the boat to spend the day fishing on sunrise- to sunset-colored seas.
I remembered the smell of salt water on sunburned skin. I remembered the sound of his table saw echoing through the hallways as he worked on his latest project in the basement. I remembered his sense of humor that turned horrible into heaven. I remembered the way he'd pat me on the knee to let me know he cared when he couldn't find the words. I remembered him fixing my car so I wouldn't have to overextend myself financially.
I remembered the smell of grease on his hands and how it would sometimes imbed itself under his fingernails like black crescent moons. I remembered the late nights he worked to help put me through college. I remembered he liked bananas, and liver with onions. I remembered he didn't like chicken because he had once seen a hen slaughtered for market.
I remembered he was a gentle man. I remembered him bringing home doughnuts each Sunday morning and never forgetting my cinnamon coffee roll. I remembered his fevered bouts with malaria, contracted from having served his country during war. I remembered the bookcase he made for me with six shelves and rounded corners at the top. I remembered him planting tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers. I remembered how he cried when my brother died and how he didn't eat for days because he couldn't stomach the reality of his guilt and grief.
I remembered he never walked our dog but would take him in the car when he went downtown to get the paper. I remembered our dog's head hanging out the car window, his furred ears flapping like propellers in the wind. I remembered my father accidentally sawing his finger off and how he wrapped his severed digit in a towel, hoping they could sew it back on at the hospital. I remembered how he was correct in that hope.
I remembered the sound of his car as it left the yard each morning and drove into the carport at day's end. I remembered him strumming guitar and tapping his foot in time. I remembered how he used to yodel for my friends. I remembered how he whistled, just because. I remembered how I was always, always good enough for him. I remembered feeling whole in his presence.
Then, I remembered why he was there, how he had grabbed the steering wheel while my mother was driving their car — an act of "mercy," he had said, to avoid hitting the little boy there in the road that his hallucinating, disintegrating mind had magically created from nothing.
"I can't do this anymore. He almost killed us," she said to me on the phone. And I understood. I understood that he wasn't her husband anymore, or my father. I understood that grabbing the steering wheel of a moving vehicle was a deadly deal breaker. I understood that her 80-year-old body was exhausted from guarding doorways in the middle of the night to prevent his attempted great escapes. I understood.
And I remembered.
Jayne B. Stearns of West Dennis is a social worker and freelance writer.
We are sitting in my office in a very sad silence and I reach over to offer tissues to the man sitting in my office. I turn my head, offering this 50 year old man a chance to cry without my 25 year old face looking at him. He tells me his father in law in the same age as his own father and he is a functioning man living in his own on the community, and how much he wishes that his father was that way to. Instead he gets weekly phone calls from nurses in the nursing home updating him on behaviors, falls, and antipsychotic medications. With his eyes still damp and his cheeks red, he looks at me and says "Today he didn't even remember who I am. It hurts me too much to come here every week and see a man who is a total stranger to me."
I want to tell this man that it is okay for him to have these feelings. That myself, and the other staff here at the nursing home, love this man too. It is okay that he doesn't come and visit every week, because he also has a family here. We will never replace his real, blood family, but we love him in our own way and he has become a part of our family. When he can't stand another moment of watching the father he knew as a kind, polite gentleman who was still married make suggestive comments or pinch the bottom of a CNA, its okay for him to leave because we will stay, knowing that he has lost his impulse control located in his brain due to his dementia. We wont take any offense.
When it is too hard for a woman to watch her mother burst out singing "All I want for Christmas are my two front teeth" on a extremely hot day in July, its okay for her to leave because I will stay and sing with this woman and to be honest, it will be the best part of my day.