“To Your Good Health.”

My oldest brother, Pat, came out to visit us last week from Wisconsin. He tries to come out a few times a year to see our parents either with his wife, or solo. His last visit was about 6 months ago, and recently, I suggested that he may want to schedule a trip in the not-so-distant-future to see our dad since his slow-dance with Alzheimer’s has left him with gradually diminishing “good days,” as he gradually drifts into the shadows. Since he still has those unexpected moments of clarity, I thought he would appreciate having some quality visits with him before he fades even more. He was all too happy to oblige. He is a great brother and son to my parents, and has always been happy to help in any way.

My brother was 18, and in college when I was born. Family legend has it that I acquired his bedroom immediately upon my arrival since he had, for all intents and purposes, “flown the coop.” I did not really grow up with Pat. Truth be told, he was more of an “uncle” to me, who I’d see occasionally on holidays. We grew up a generation apart, yet in many ways, I feel the closest to him. He is very level-headed and non-judgmental, and we share a common (slightly warped) sense of humor. For some reason, we just connect. I find it endlessly fascinating that he has a whole different “family history” than I do. It’s almost like he is from a different family. I’m the youngest of 7, but in a way I’m an only child. He grew up with siblings. I really didn’t. And, he knew my parents when they were young! How cool is THAT.

We prepped my dad before Pat’s arrival, explaining that his oldest son was coming to visit. It would be kinda 50/50 if he would remember him. In my morning visits with my dad, I asked him questions about how it felt when he first became a father, and I asked him other things to get him thinking about my brother. We talked about Pat living in Wisconsin, about my sister-in-law, Sue, and their grown daughters. It still amazes me how memories from long ago can still resonate so clearly with my dad. I hoped that by exercising his brain with those subjects, it might ease any unfamiliarity he could possibly experience when Pat walked into the room for the first time in months. He grew excited at his arrival.

One of the guilty pleasures about having my out-of-town siblings come to visit for a stretch, is that it allows me to have a bit of “respite” from visiting my dad. I struggle with the feelings of guilt in admitting that, but I do find myself sleeping a little easier knowing they are in town, staying with my mom, and seeing my dad regularly. It allows me to detach – lovingly – and shift my priorities to my own family for a few days at least – something that I often have difficulty doing. Not that I am with my dad 24/7 or anything, but I sometimes feel that the role reversal that is so typical when parents age, can feel a bit heavy at times. I literally exhale as I go to bed, knowing that I’m off the hook, so to speak, from the worry. Since I tend to worry a lot, it’s actually quite freeing.

The day Pat arrived, I slowly and without fanfare, backed out of my daily nursing home visits that have become my morning ritual after dropping off my daughter at preschool for a fleeting 2 1/2 hours. Instead, I used the time to catch up on house chores, reintroduce myself to the gym, or tackle some school volunteer duties I have swept aside.

I wasn’t there when Pat first arrived and saw my dad, but I heard the relief in his voice when he said he remembered him. Or at least we think he did. The tough thing about my dad is, he is always so congenial when greeting people that he often tries to “cover” when he doesn’t remember someone, coloring any embarrassment with his typical warm welcome, or joke. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the real story is.

As their visits progressed, he sometimes confused Pat with my other brother, or with his own brothers, but that was no big deal. Pat soon learned soon enough that my dad’s days were unpredictable. Some mornings he could barely get out of bed and could only be transported with a wheelchair. Other days, he was back to using his walker and flirting with the nurses. That’s how it is with dementia. It’s simply a “new normal.” You size him up when you see him, and you adjust based on what you get. But you love him no matter what.

After all, he’s still my dad.

My brother’s visit wrapped up a few days ago and he prepared to head home to the midwest. It was a great visit for him – comforting, poignant, entertaining, and reflective, all wrapped into one. As I drove him to the airport his past Tuesday, I prepared to re-enter the world that I temporarily left behind. The very next day, I walked into “The Inn” (my dad’s term for his nursing home), stepped into the elevator, and pressed the button for the third floor.

I found my dad sitting alone at his usual table in the dining area on his floor; his walker by his side. I snuck up behind him and greeted him loudly in his “good” ear, “HEY Dad!!!” His eyes flashed open wide and he exclaimed, “My DARLING! I haven’t seen you in AGES!” I smiled and took a seat next to him, while an aide sauntered over to deliver his fresh plate of scrambled eggs. I noticed his glass was empty so I stood up and walked over to the kitchen area and grabbed a pitcher of orange juice. As I filled his glass, he watched me with a smile on his face. Then he picked it up, raised the glass to me and toasted, “To your good health, sweetheart!” I smiled, pleased that he was having a good morning. I hadn’t remember him using that line in ages.

He then said to me, “You know, I had SUCH a nice visit with Pat!” I smiled and nodded, and asked him all about it. Then he added, “You know what?” He continued, “On his last visit before he had to go home, he actually gave me a KISS!” He beamed, a sense of pride washing over him. I watched as he took a pack of sugar from the container on the table, tore into it and brought it over to his plate and sprinkled it on his eggs. “Dad!” I gently interrupted “Don’t you want to put SALT on your eggs instead of sugar?” And he looked up, with confusion, thought about it for a minute, and said, “No, it’s fine, honey.” I didn’t want to push it since I sensed he was a little embarrassed. My heart sank a little.

He polished off his eggs and then dove into his bowl of raisin bran. I was pleased to see him eat so well – the same feeling I get when my daughters do. He wiped his mouth and said to me, “Honey, I can’t tell you how happy it makes me when you visit me. I look forward to it so much!” I smiled at him and said, “I’m glad, dad. It makes me happy, too.”

We sat a little longer in silence, his breakfast finished. I glanced at my watch and prepared to head out to do a few errands before retrieving my daughter from school. He took my hand as I stood up and squeezed it. “I love you, Teresa,” he said, “Do you know that?”

I nodded, a lump forming in my throat. “I sure do,” I said.

To your good health, Dad.

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