Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Waking Dreams of My Father

I don't know how to talk about what Dad is going through, or what I'm going through trying to stay precariously balanced in a situation that is always changing.

So I'm just going to "talk" about it, rambling and writing whatever comes out.

This is something I never imagined, ever, in the first 54 years of my life.

When my Dad started to slow down in his late 70s, and after he moved into his 80s and slowed down more, I sometimes thought that when we said goodbye at the end of one of our frequent visits to Arlington, it might be the last time.

I thought, "Maybe this is it. Maybe I'll never see him alive again in this world." I thought about that possibility. I won't say I was prepared for it, but I saw it on the horizon.

When his motor coordination and memory began to decline gradually last year, I figured it was the initiation of a slow decline.

But Dad was dependable. He was always basically the same (at least as I perceived him). He loved with persistence and dedication those who were entrusted to him. He took care of my Mom. He took care of my brother and me, taught us the value of hard work and being professional, but without goading us. Worldly success was not an inflexible imperative; when health problems brought my own career crashing down, he was there to help and to be quietly understanding.

He loved his grandchildren and they loved their "Papa." When the kids were little, they saw my parents a lot. We would spend many weekends (and longer visits during the Summer) at their place, with the kids in sleeping bags on the floor in the living room. The kids have so many happy memories of those days, growing up with their grandparents.

Dad wasn't perfect and he had his share of problems and suffering. Growing old was a particular challenge as he began (slowly, it seemed) to have difficulty doing a lot of things that used to be easy for him. He was, after all, over 80 years old. He was getting forgetful, a little hard of hearing (we thought), slower, more frail.

But he seemed to be the same consistent Dad we had known all our lives.

Then came the year 2018. What is probably an Alzheimer's-related dementia accelerated very rapidly in a few months to the point where he now only occasionally manages to speak a coherent sentence. He has also completely lost the ability to walk.

It's like a bomb fell from the sky and just blew up.

It's been a complete revolution, above all in his life but also for the rest of us. We're still in the process of trying to put things together in a new way. Both Mom and Dad are safe and getting the assistance they need, but a lot of things are still provisional.

In retrospect, we can see that there were signs of his illness in the last couple of years. There may have been more that we didn't see. Our parents loved us, but they didn't want to "burden" us. Indeed, they valued their independence, their privacy, their routines, even their furniture (some of which is older than me and still in great condition).

Dad seems adjusted to his new physical surroundings after 6 months (though he doesn't really know where he is; sometimes he thinks he's still at home, or in a hotel, or at a conference, or we don't know because he says words that don't make sense). He gets frustrated because he can't remember what he wants to say to us, or how to say the words.

My brother and I get to see him a lot, and he still recognizes us. A lot of impressions go through his mind from the past, from things that happened a long time ago, from things that never happened at all. At one point the other day, he grabbed our arms and said, "You're real, right? You're really here."

My father lives in a world of obscurity, of waking dreams. Thank God he is being well cared for, and that we can spend time with him.

It has taken me a long time just to realize how difficult it is for me to accept that my Dad is incapacitated. When he says things that make no sense, it's not my fault that I can't understand him.

It's not my fault. That would seem obvious, but it's different when it's your own father's face in front of you, still with some of the expressions you have seen--and the voice you have heard--ever since you were born. This is the face and the voice that raised you, that always "made sense," that you loved, trust, admired, and respected. Around your own middle age, you finally began to appreciate him deeply--to realize how much sense and how much wisdom and how much love came from that face and that voice.

It's still there. Occasionally something flashes through, suddenly and rapidly. He grabbed my shoulder today and said, "Solid fellow. Solid fellow." He is still the same living breathing human person; he is just handicapped by a terminal illness. He can still give and receive love.

And we have to remember that fact in the time to come, as the illness progresses and he can no longer grab our shoulders or even open his own eyes.

I know there is deep-down mysterious suffering for my Dad. I pray for him all the time, and trust in God who knows him entirely and loves him completely. God knows what my Dad needs in this last season of life, and for eternity.

Well, that's enough rambling from me. I'm battling to keep my own head above water. Even though I often feel more useless than ever, I also see (as much as a human being can see such things) that my task in this life is not yet completed.

Even if it seems like nothing, I'll do what I can for each day and throw myself upon the mercy of God.