The Gift of a Clear Day.

Once, every so often, it happens.

I get my Dad back.

As time marches on and my dad continues to do his slow-dance with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, the window of time between his “good days,” and his “not-so-good days” begins to slowly close.

For a while there, it seemed like we were spoiled and the dad I used to know would always seem to eventually come out from hiding. We saw traces of The Charmer; The Corny Joke-Teller; The Flatterer, who loves to compliment a passerby or insert a humorous quip to the simple reward of hearing a stranger’s laugh.

But for the last year or so, my dad seemed to be vanishing. It was as if someone put a veil over him. Everything started to get cloudy. Due to illness and the resulting weakness and inactivity, we have come to accept that Alzheimer’s had been slowly winning; robbing us of this man we loved. And we watched helplessly as the essence of my dad began to spend more and more time in the shadows.

But, through reasons that defy explanation, every great once in a while, something incredible happens.

I dropped off my daughter at school and then drove the familiar side-street route to The Inn (my dad’s term for his nursing home.) As I entered this “second home” of mine, I walked through the automatic doors and was warmly welcomed by the staff who greeted me by name. One of my dad’s physical therapists who was pushing another resident in a wheelchair spotted me and said, “I just worked with your dad. He went back upstairs for breakfast.” I nodded gratefully, and stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the third floor.

As the doors opened, I immediately spotted my dad sitting in the dining area at a table with some other men – his table companions – and observed him devouring a bowl of Raisin Bran. In front of him, I spotted an empty plate containing the remnants of some scrambled eggs. “Good. He’s got an appetite today!” I thought to myself.

I walked over to him and he looked up at me. A big, bright smile crept over his face and he exclaimed, “DARLING! I’m SO happy to SEE you!”

(Now, I could easily blame the dementia when my dad reacts as if he hasn’t seen me for 5 years instead of just the day before, but truth be told, all my life he has greeted me and my siblings like that. He has always had a way of making you feel like a Rock Star.)

But today, he seemed different. I could tell almost immediately. There was a familiar “spark” that had found his blue eyes again. He was actually looking at me, instead of through me.

My dad was back.

“Dad?” I said with slight disbelief. “How’s it going?” He smiled and said, “Oh, honey, I’m doing JUST great! I had a great night’s sleep and then I had my exercise downstairs in the gym and I feel SO good today!” I smiled at him as he took my hand, brought it to his lips, and kissed it – his signature greeting. “That’s great, Dad! You seem like your old self today!” I said with pride. Then he introduced me to his table companions, “This is my YOUNGEST daughter! She visits me almost every day!” I smiled politely at the men who nodded at me.

I knew then that I had been given a great gift. The gift of a clear day.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell phone. I quickly called my mom. When she answered I said, “Mom! You won’t believe it! He’s BACK!” I could tell she knew by my voice what I meant. “It’s like it’s 20 years ago!” I heard her voice excitedly whisper into the phone, “Really?!”

As I sat there with him at his table, I took the brush out of my purse and combed his hair. “There! THAT looks better!” I told him, pleased with how much neater his hair looked.  I spotted him looking at me intently. I hadn’t seen him do that in a while and it actually caught me a little off guard. “Teresa?” he said. “Yeah, dad?” I answered, looking away and plucking some invisible lint off my leg. Then he said, “Please look at me.” I felt a lump form in my throat. I looked up at him. He fixed his eyes directly on mine and said, “Do you have any idea just how much I love you?” I tried hard to keep my composure. I coughed. A minute went by. Then I said, “Yes, dad, I do.”

The moment passed. We sat there for a half-hour more. There was so much I wanted to tell him during this magical moment of clarity. I told him about my girls – how they have blossomed into these amazing creatures; what they were accomplishing in school. (Even though he sees them regularly, I felt I had a great opportunity to reach him with the mundane details he so often misses.) We talked about my mom and he once again professed his deep-rooted love for her and how he longs to be with her all throughout the day. The only drawback to these moments of lucidity is the realization that he is living apart from his family. We’ve learned to navigate these twists and turns. “Don’t worry, dad. She’ll be here soon,” I promised. He nodded and I knew he understood.

As time passed, I glanced at my watch. “Don’t tell me you have to go,” he said, eyes growing worried. “I’m sorry, dad. But I have to pick up Josie from school,” I explained. I picked up my purse and fiddled inside for my car keys that were lost somewhere in the black hole of my belongings. I stood up and prepared to say my familiar goodbye. I leaned over to kiss him on the cheek, promising him I’d be back tomorrow.

As I walked toward the elevator, I turned and glanced back at him, and saw he was watching me; a smile on his face.

I’m not naive. I know that tomorrow is likely a different kind of day. Chances are he’ll be back to the way he was; happily confused. I know it is likely that this day won’t be repeated again for some time.

But that’s okay.

Today was a day to celebrate.

A day to say a prayer of thanks to God, for giving me my dad back…even if it is for just a day.

I’ve really missed him.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Yesterday we celebrated my dad’s 88th birthday. It was a bittersweet day. It was the first time we weren’t able to bring him home for the occasion. But there still was an occasion to celebrate, and to this daughter, that’s all that mattered.

In the past few weeks his health has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. Last month he caught a flu-like bug which knocked him down for the count. Then, as is often his style, he rebounded heroically, only to become ill again just a few days ago with the same bug…which perhaps wasn’t completely wiped out in the first place.

That is just how life is right now. You have to learn to roll with the punches. 

And as my dad continues to do his slow-dance with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, the punches come fast and furious when an illness comes to visit.

We had made some nice ground over the last weeks. Physical therapy got him out of that cold, steel wheelchair companion that seemed to follow him wherever he went. His strength returned enough to go back to using his walker, though with an aide safely by his side.

Yesterday, the wheelchair was back.

That darned party-crasher!

But though uninvited, I suppose it should stay. For now.

Over the last few months, our family has come to accept that the process of my dad slowly “fading” has begun. It hurts me to even write that. But it’s true. When he is with us, many times he is not really there. Smiles have become more polite. Introductions to familiar faces require more explanation and coaching. Names of people he sees every day no longer fall off the tip of his tongue.

And the faces of family members he hasn’t seen in a while are beginning to grow darker.

That’s the hard part.

My dad still “covers” quite nicely. His inner salesman (or maybe the better term is “game show host?”) will smile wildly when he greets someone he doesn’t remember and his enthusiastic response makes the person think he remembers them warmly. But as someone who spends many days a week watching this unfold, I can easily see he is trying his best to curb any embarrassment on his part when he greets this new “stranger.” Deep down, he still wants the person to feel important. 

That’s my dad.   

In the days before party day approached, I spent my mornings at The Inn (the term he uses for his nursing home) chatting with his nurses, becoming educated on lab test results, and learning the fine art of how to don a paper mask without smudging my lip gloss.

I texted my siblings daily, giving them updates and play-by-plays. “Today he sat up in bed!” followed by “Tomorrow he gets to go to the dining room!” And finally, “He’s no longer contagious…the party’s on!”

The people who work at The Inn are amazing. During our monthly care-plan meeting (where my mom and I meet with nursing and other staff to discuss how things are going and areas that can be improved upon in his care) we talked about the difficulty of bringing my dad home for visits now. They offered to give us a private room and set up tables and chairs so we could celebrate with our family.

They even blew up balloons!

So yesterday, the family gathered. Two of my local sisters came with their husbands. My niece came with her husband and beautiful 2 year-old twin daughters. My husband and two girls arrived.

The room filled up with life.

We ordered take-out from Panera. My sister baked her world-famous chocolate cake.

The party had come to him!

My dad was wheeled down and was in good spirits. He was wearing a brand new sweater my sister bought him. We slapped a party hat on him and he was good to go!

He looked happy to have us there. He sat next to my mom. They held hands. He whispered to her occasionally. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him take her hand and kiss it sweetly. I overheard him say, “I love you, Barbie.” She smiled and said she loved him back.

My older daughter who is 6 1/2, has a zest for life. She loves her grandfather. She plays with him and teases him. I watched as she took a balloon and rubbed it on his head. Her eyes lit up as the static electricity from my dad’s still-full head of hair, dangled it in place. My dad played along.

Now that’s a party!

Eight years ago when my dad turned 80, I made a memory book for him. I had everyone write a few paragraphs of what he meant to them and then I scanned in an old photo of when my siblings were little, alongside a present-day photo. I included contributions from his grandchildren, his brothers and sister, and even people who used to work for him. My dad who had just begun his journey with dementia, read that book every day for years. It honored him and he loved all the attention.

We thought it would be fun to try that again.

So each of my siblings wrote a page of what my dad meant to them as a Happy Birthday gift. We gave them to my dad to read after the party.

My mom did one, too.

It was a beautiful day. A bittersweet day. A day to celebrate with family and a day to celebrate a man who means a great deal to us.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you.