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.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Susan Stevenson
    Feb 06, 2012 @ 13:26:32

    Dear Teresa,

    I remember your mom and dad fondly from our days in Merrimack; memories that bring a smile..what beautiful people. I will keep the family in my prayers and, if you would, remember me to both.

    These are indeed roller coaster days, and ones that are difficult for all the family, but treasure each and every second. This time is so precious, so hug him and mom to your hearts delight. She is blessed to have such wonderful support from her loving family.

    I will keep the family in my prayers, and if you would, remember me to both.

    Fondly,

    Sue Stevenson

    Reply

  2. Cheryl
    Feb 07, 2012 @ 11:08:30

    Beautiful, Tree. You’re the best daughter ever!!

    Reply

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