I’ve written before about my father’s declining memory. Until fairly recently, we took some hope in the fact that he was chronically very low on B12. He has problems absorbing it through his diet (due to longstanding but stable health issues) and we hoped that aggressive supplementation might help.
Then came the encounter where he didn’t recognize his next-door neighbor and kept re-introducing himself, saying he was looking for a “small animal, white with brown spots.” He couldn’t remember what sort of animal. (It was the cat he and his wife recently adopted. The fact that he loves it is also anomalous – he’s always distrusted cats – but very sweet.)
Then came the night when he misrecognized his wife. He thought she was my mom’s sister (that is, his former sister-in-law).
Then came the collision – his car with another – which was (predictably) his fault. Through some great fortune, no one was injured. Soon thereafter, my brother and his wife hid his keys.
Then came the episode where he came into the bathroom where his wife was showering, brandishing a shotgun. He’d heard a noise outside and fired off a couple of warning shots. We don’t know how true this is, because my brother had already confiscated all the ammo in the house (or so he thought). But soon thereafter, my brother spirited off all the guns. He’ll explain that he’s “cleaning” them, and this will be a very lengthy process indeed.
Then came yesterday’s doctor visit. My brother and his wife bundled my dad down to UC Davis, a good hour-long drive from his home in the California foothills. He was fit to be tied as soon as they were in the car. The doctor met first with my dad’s entourage. He didn’t need to see the MRI, he said; based on their description of my father’s behavior, it had to be Alzheimer’s.
Then my dad berated the doctor for a while, refused testing, insisted there was nothing wrong with him, and announced that any goddamned fool ought to know it’s normal for a guy to be a little forgetful when he’s nearly 80. I wasn’t in the room, but I’m sure there was a lot more cussing, there and on the ride home.
Well, at least there must have been a flash of my dad as he once was – feisty and cantankerous and just difficult. Who knew that I would someday mourn the man who used to harangue me about how wonderful Reagan was and how foolish those lilylivered liberals? Now, though, his rage is focused on his frustrations. It’s terribly hard for him, and it’s trying for his wife, who is bearing the brunt. He has detailed memories of people and events in North Dakota, 40 or 60 years ago. He just can’t remember how to work the TV remote. One outburst came after he called his wife at work, wondering why the house was so hot. She came home to find the AC on the coldest setting but every single window thrown wide open. “I can’t fucking do anything right,” he said.
Yes, in some sense he is raging against the dying of the light, as I once wished he would. But on a deeper level that’s not true, because in so many important ways, he is barely the man I’ve known for the past 47 years. His self is receding. And anyway, the rage is wholly impotent.
Somehow I’d managed to believe that my dad’s cognitive decline could be something other than Alzheimer’s. Now, this diagnosis sounds so final. It feels like both a life sentence and a death sentence for my dad. Well, I guess it is all that, and more. I feel like my father is already gone, and I missed the point when he left. It feels like I’m mourning him piecemeal. It feels as though there’s no space in my life for mourning or grief. Classes still need to be taught. Papers need to be graded (though I haven’t touched them since last night’s phone call from my sister, when I got the news). Kids still need meals, homework supervision, and nursing (the Tiger’s out of school with a fever). Only in the middle of the night is there time and space for weeping.
I hate that I’m so far from my family. I hate that the burden rests so relentlessly on his wife, and that my brother has had to do so much more than I. I hate that I can do so little to help. Yes, I can call him, and I don’t do it often enough. The truth is, I dread further evidence of decline.
The last time I spoke with my dad, I had almost found a way to navigate the mix of nonsense and fact. I just pretended he was tripping. I harked back to those times when I felt responsible for keeping a friend from having a bad trip. I didn’t let reality perturb me. Experience with altered states turns out to be a more useful life skill than I’d ever imagined.
He knew who I was throughout the phone call. For that, I am grateful.
But the day draws near when he won’t know me anymore. A couple of weeks ago, his wife – testing his tether to reality – asked him: “Do you have children?”
“Yes, three.” A pause. “I have a son.” He named him, then added: “I have two daughters. An older one and a younger one.”
“Do you know their names?”
A much longer pause. Then: “I have a Patty.”
“And your other daughter?”
“That’s the smart, funny little one.”
He drew a complete blank on my sister’s name. Perhaps she will forever be the smart young one, caught in the hardening amber of my father’s brain.