(January 5, 2011)

I dropped off my girls at school and then went to visit my dad today. He lives in town, about 10 minutes away from me, and a quick 5 minutes from my mom’s house. He lives at the “The Inn” which is his name for the nursing home he calls home. It’s where he’s hung his hat for the last 5 or so years as he continues to do his slow dance with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. He’s a month shy of his 87th birthday but has been doing great while battling a host of other medical issues common among “distinguished gentlemen.” He gets around pretty well with his walker – his “trusted steel companion” that steadies him when he stands, and is always by his side.

Living at “The Inn” has prolonged the quality of his life. For so many people, when they make the difficult decision to transition a family member to a place like that, it often signals the end of the road. But for my dad, it became a place that reinvigorated him. The main reason is that it brought him back to the one thing that time and again, has given him the most joy in his life: being around people.  My dad has been in Sales his whole life. What’s that expression? “He could sell ice to an Eskimo.” That’s my dad. He is the kind of man who can get anyone to divulge their entire life’s story within the course of talking to them for 5 minutes. He has always had a natural curiosity for people – where they are from, what makes them tick, and especially, how to flatter them. And oh, how he flatters! To this day, a nurse will walk by and he’ll say, “Hey Paula, you are looking exceptionally beautiful today!” But he’s done this all my life. During my childhood, if we went out to a restaurant, at the end when the the waitress would bring the check and ask how everything was, he’d steal a quick look at her name badge and blurt out, “Carla, the food was ALMOST as good as the service!” The waitress would inevitably blush and laugh demurely, while my siblings and I would do the obligatory eye-roll to each other. “Dad! You’re SO embarrassing!” He’d just smile, pleased with himself at having created another happy customer.

For the last month or so, our family has noticed a slight change in my dad. I prefer the word “change” over the word “decline.” Somehow that makes it easier to swallow. The morning I visited him at 8:30 a.m., I found him still in bed (this from a man who religiously rises at 6 a.m. or earlier to greet the day.)  I walked in, smiled brightly and exclaimed, “Hey DAD!”  He opened his eyes and his face lit up in a smile. “Well, HI!” he said enthusiastically. Then he looked at me carefully. “Who are you?” My heart leapt into my throat. But instead, I laughed heartily, “Oh Dad! YOU know who I am, silly!” I leaned in closer as he rubbed his eyes. Then he laughed along with me, perhaps to cover his embarrassment. “Oh yes!!! I knew THAT!” he said. He tried to straighten himself up in bed while I coughed loudly to scare away the tears that started to well in my eyes. After a minute, he did know who I was. It all came back to him. That’s how it is these days. Especially right after waking up. It’s just a new reality. A few minutes later and after he snapped-to a bit, there we were, father and daughter again. Except now, my dad simply needed a daughter’s help to get out of bed. I helped him get settled with his breakfast, while flashing back to an hour earlier when I did the same thing for my 4 year-old as we raced against the clock to get to school. Then it hit me how remarkable it is that I am living in such seemingly different worlds, and how strikingly similar they’ve become.  Parenthood takes many forms.

After a while, I looked at my watch. It was almost time to go pick up the girls at school. I grabbed my purse and blew him a kiss. As I started to leave he took my hand, brought it to his mouth and kissed it gently, as he has done a million times before. “I love you. Have I ever told you that?” “Only about a thousand times, Dad,” I said with the instinctive obligatory eye roll.  As I left his room, a nurse breezed in to take his blood pressure. As I walked away down the hall I heard my dad’s distinctive voice say to her, “Amy, you are looking even more beautiful today than you did yesterday!” I smiled. After all, he’s still my dad.

The Barber

I dropped off my daughter at preschool school this morning and darted over to pick up my dad to take him to the barber. His slow-dance with Alzheimer’s has progressed to the point that when he now leaves the familiar surroundings of “The Inn,” (his term for the nursing home where he hangs his hat) he is filled with a bit of apprehension and anxiety. No big deal – you just adjust. Today, this adjustment took the form of giving him lots …of encouragement and coaching as we walked arm and arm into the barber shop. “You’re doing great, Dad,” I said. “Just a few more steps.” Once inside, I saw that there were a few men of varying ages ahead of us, waiting for their turn. Their heads were bent down, enthralled with their iPads and phones. I helped my dad find his chair and folded his walker and stored it against the wall. Then, as is so typical with my dad, he soon took stock of the people sitting in the room. I saw his anxiety lift and he perked right up, anxious to make their acquaintance. That familiar spark found his eye as he began to informally chat with one, then two of them, pulling them out of their private electronic cocoons. Out came his humorous quips and one-liners – things that Alzheimer’s has yet to steal. I watched as slow smiles crept upon the men’s lips. Before I knew it, he had these three men talking and laughing. After a little while, my dad leaned over to me and whispered, “Honey, can you tell me again, how old I am?” I whispered back, “Almost 88, Dad.” I saw him think about it for a minute and then he said to his new friends, “And I don’t like to brag, but I’m almost 88 and the pretty girls STILL whistle!” I looked at their laughing faces. Then I looked over at my dad and felt his pride at being able to still earn the admiration of strangers. But then again, they weren’t really strangers anymore.

A Memory Reborn

I dropped off my youngest daughter at school and stopped by to visit my dad the other day (he lives in a nursing home here in town where he does his slow-dance with Alzheimer’s) and he was recounting the story of how he met my mom, some 60+ years ago. Now, I have heard this story countless times, mind you, but I always let him tell it. He is still a great story-teller – with a booming voice – and …many times strangers passing by will stop just to listen to him. So I sat politely and listened to the familiar family legend of how my mom and dad first met. He told of the day he met her at a church picnic and how he looked across the yard to see the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on, sitting with her parents. He tried to get up the nerve to go up and talk to her and introduce himself. As he went on, I watched him get lost in the memory as he seemed to fall in love with her all over again. But a new detail soon emerged that caught me off guard. My eyes perked up as he went off-script and I heard him say, “And then we were talking, just the two of us, and suddenly she said to me out-of-the-blue, “Ed, I’ve never had someone as GOOD-LOOKING as you talk to me before!” Like a needle scratching across a record, I sat up, startled at this new information. So I blurted out, “Dad, wait a minute! She NEVER said that! You’re totally making that up!” (Now if you know my dad, he has always been quite the comedian, and known to “embellish” a tale or two.) But he grew serious. “Honey, as GOD IS MY WITNESS,” he said dramatically, “YES she DID say that!” So I nodded politely and let him finish. The story ended with the usual flare; nothing out of the ordinary. After a while, I looked at my watch and told him I had to leave. He took my hand and kissed it, same as he’s done since I was a girl.  I got in my car and then dialed my mom’s number as I usually did, this time to “fact check” my dad’s story. I told her what he had said. She started laughing. Then, after a minute she said, “Um, no. That never happened. But it sure makes for a great story!” I smiled. Leave it to my dad to insert a good, old-fashioned ego stroke as he breathes new life into an old memory. The man’s still got it. Good for him.

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