There’s Beauty in the Bad Days.

It’s been a little while since I’ve written about my dad. There’s no particular reason; sometimes life just gets in the way. My children’s school year wrapped up, and so did some other projects I was working on. My focus has shifted back to my 5 and 7 year-olds as they happily envelop me into their world of endless summer days and wind-whipped beach hair.

For those who are new to my story, my dad is 88 and lives at The Inn, his term for his nursing home here in town, where he does his Slow Dance with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. Gratefully, he still knows me and my family, and my mother, the Silent Warrior and his bride of 62 years who visits him almost daily, and is responsible for the light washing over his face whenever she enters the room.

But he’s still my dad. He loves to flirt with the nurses and make random small talk. His favorite accomplishment is earning the admiration of strangers through a humorous quip or corny joke. Though his memory is fading, I can always tell it’s a good day when these utterances or one-liners escape his lips. And you can feel the joy when he gets the line right. It’s a beautiful thing.

My dad has had his ups and down for the last 6 years while at The Inn. His health is frail. He’s had a host of maladies ranging from strokes, to mild heart attacks to COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) over the last 15 years. He is on a pharmacy of medications to keep him going, but you can always judge the kind of day he’s having by whether or not you see his walker, or a wheelchair in his room.

Today I found the wheelchair parked by his bed. That’s never a good sign. His walker – his trusted steel companion – was abandoned in the back of the room holding his beloved Notre Dame license plate my sister gave him that he carts around with him every day.

I got a call this morning from his nurse that my dad developed a bad cold yesterday. The cold turned into a fever last night and for a man who is “chronologically gifted” (to use one of his catchphrases), this can sometimes throw a giant wrench in things. He is prone to pneumonia so they have ordered a chest x-ray and full panel of blood work to check what’s going on. In the elderly and especially someone with my dad’s health history, things can change dramatically and fast.

I walked into his room to find a lab tech preparing to take his blood. I saw my dad laying listlessly in bed, his normal jeans and golf shirt replaced by a “johnnie.” Though he was very groggy, he still managed to greet me with his familiar, “Darling!”

His dementia often worsens when he’s sidelined by illness. But as is typical with my dad, he still tried his darndest  to charm the young woman who was now struggling to find his nearly invisible veins. He opened one eye and brightened up when he saw her bright pink shirt and weakly uttered, “Who’s this BEAUTIFUL young lady trying to help me?!?” She giggled and said, “Oh, Ed! I’m SO glad to see you again. Can I get my hug?” He opened his other eye and tried his best to lift his arm around her. “You ALWAYS make me feel so good, Ed!” she beamed. My dad started to perk up. After all, there’s a lady in the room to charm! And my dad always comes alive – especially in the presence of strangers.

As she finished getting her samples and turned to leave, she leaned into my mom and said, “Your husband always makes it a point to tell me how much he loves you whenever I see him.” She continued, “I always look forward to seeing him because he makes me believe there is someone out there who will love me like that!” (She’s single.) I smiled and said, “My parents have a great love story.” She nodded in agreement and said, “It gives me hope!” Then she left, smiling.

I looked over at my mother, sitting quietly by his bedside. I could tell there was worry in her eyes. She gives very little away, my mother, but you can usually tell by looking at her face that she is deep in thought as she looks watchfully at her husband.

As my mom and I sat quietly in his room, my dad drifted off. I glanced at the wall of his room at the family bulletin board we filled up with photographs to help my dad hold onto some of the fleeting memories. There were pictures of my parents as newlyweds, during middle-age, and present-day with their grandchildren.

I spot a photo of my mom and dad as young parents at the beach with their little children. My dad looks youthful and happy with horn-rimmed glasses and a goofy grin. I imagine that day at the beach – long before I was born – with them darting around after their kids. My mom is dark-haired and slender; always beautiful, while I imagined she watched with delight as her babies raced around in the warm sand.

I look at another photo of my dad a little older, but still in the prime of his life – with his dark, curly hair that my mom said she always loved. He was giving one of his trademark goofy expressions. His waistline was thicker then, as I flashbacked to his fondness for Snickers candy bars and how he would often run to the grocery store from time to time and come back with his chocolate bar “six-pack.”


There are other pictures, too, of me and my six siblings; other photos with our children. I see the last professional photo taken of my parents when they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and remembered that day when we dressed my dad up in one of his old suit jackets and rushed him out of The Inn in time to make their portrait sitting down the street, praying he would remember how to tie his tie that day. (He did!)

Then out of the corner of my eye, I spot the hand-drawn picture my 5 year-old daughter made secretly on the nurse’s whiteboard depicting her love for her grandfather.

I observe all these photos on my dad’s wall. The snapshots of a lifetime. My dad’s memories preserved for him.

The love surrounding him.

Then I look back at my dad as he lies motionless in bed; his eyes closed as he continues to slumber. I look at the silver waves of hair draped messily over his head – still a full head of hair at 88!  I see his weathered face peppered with age spots and deep lines. I look at his tired, heavy eyes. He starts to softly snore. My mother watches him and smiles. I see the look of love in her eyes. I wonder what she thinks? What is it like to watch your beloved companion as they navigate the twilight of their life? Is it hard? Is it frightening?

Then it occurred to me that there is beauty in this room. Even on a bad day like today. Love can be found everywhere. It’s hanging on his bedroom walls, captured in the smiling faces of the people from another time staring back, perfectly preserved in a photograph.

It’s in the caregivers who hug my father as if he were their own; who are inspired by him.

It’s in a spouse’s eyes as they watch over their loved one with concern and worry.

It’s in the silent prayers I know my mother is saying, as she steels herself for a possible period of decline.

There is beauty in this moment because I am able to share it with my dad. As hard as it is to see him like this, it also a gift to be here with him.

There is beauty everywhere. You just have to look for it.

“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.

In Sickness and in Health. An Anniversary to Remember.

When the phone rings at 5:15 a.m., it’s never a good thing.

I sprung awake, bleary-eyed and fumbled for my phone. I braced myself for it to be the nursing home, calling about my dad. But as I grabbed it, I saw the word, “MOM” flash across the screen and light up the darkness. Mom? I thought to myself. That’s odd.

“Hi Mom! What’s up?” I answered, worriedly. “Hi, honey!” she replied, with forced cheeriness. “Well…I’m so sorry to wake you. But I found Charlie (her very old dog) stuck on the kitchen floor, and I was trying to help him stand because his back legs gave out.” Then I heard a pause. She continued, “And…well, then I tripped over him, and I fell and…I bumped my head. On the floor. And well, I just didn’t know what to do.”

I stood up mechanically and started to form a mental checklist to figure out the priority of the situation: mother = fell and hit head; elderly dog = stuck on kitchen floor.

“Oh no! Never be sorry – I’m so glad you called!” I said, trying to alleviate her worry. My husband started to ask me questions as he listened to my half of the conversation. “Ask her if she is bleeding,” he whispered. I nodded enthusiastically, grateful that his rational thinking was chiming in. “Mom? Are you bleeding?” She replied that she wasn’t. Then he said, “Ask her if she is dizzy; is her vision blurry?” I relayed the questions and was relieved that her answers seemed to be okay. Then I heard him whisper, “Does she sound confused?” and I whispered back, “No, she sounds good. Clear-headed.” Then I heard her say, nervously, “But Charlie is still stuck on the floor. He can’t get up.”

Then my husband said, “I’ll take care of the girls and get them ready for school. You should go over there and check her out. It’s early. The kids are still sleeping.” So I said, “Mom, I’m on my way!” and hung up the phone.

I darted into my car and began the 5-minute leg to her house. Funny how at this hour it seemed to take forever as I drove through the pitch-black neighborhoods. Some houses were starting to come alive as I noticed single lights turning on. Most of the town was still slumbering.

As I opened her garage door and made my way inside, I found my mom sitting in her nightgown in a kitchen chair, with an ice pack parked on her forehead. When she moved it away, I saw a bump about the size of a golf ball forming just above her eyebrow. Her eyelid was just starting to turn a pale shade of blue. I turned to see Charlie, her 13 year-old Shetland sheepdog, staring at me with interest, his back legs spread-eagle on the slippery tile floor. He was, quite literally, on his last legs. But that’s a sad story for another day.

I helped her old furry friend stand up by grabbing under his belly and raising him carefully onto a rug so his paws could get some traction. His back legs and hips are very arthritic and he had likely been laying on the floor in that condition for hours. I put him onto the carpet and watched as his legs, though wobbly, eventually began to regain strength and he slowly waddled off.

Then I turned my attention back to my mom. As I was taking stock of her head, suddenly I glanced down to see a tennis-ball-size black-and-blue bump forming on her elbow. It was bleeding. “HOLY CRAP!” I blurted out, as we both looked at it at the same time. “Yikes,” she said. “That doesn’t look good.”

I whipped out my iPhone and texted a photo of both her forehead and elbow to my husband. He called a minute later and said I should bring her to Urgent Care. “But it doesn’t open until 7,” I explained, noticing that it was only 6 a.m. “Can she move it?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. “Well then that’s a good sign that maybe it isn’t broken. Why don’t you just bring her back home with you, you can get dressed and bring her in at 7 a.m.” Yeah, that made sense, I thought. Glad one of us was thinking straight.

I helped her to my car and we began the drive back to my house. I put on the classical music station, since I knew it was her favorite. Then it dawned on me. Today is April 10th! I looked over at her and said, “Hey Mom! Happy Anniversary!” She smiled tiredly and said, “Thanks, honey. What a way to start the day!”

Today is my parent’s 62nd anniversary. I had arranged with the staff at my dad’s nursing home (where he does his slow-dance with Alzheimer’s,) for them to have a private romantic lunch – complete in their own dining room – for later in the day when my mom planned on visiting my dad. There would even be balloons. “Well, we’ll have to plan your special lunch later in the week when you’re feeling better,” I reassured her. She smiled and looked out the car window. I made a mental note to call to postpone the lunch.

As we drove back to my house, I left my mom parked in the passenger side of my car, promising I’d be back to bring her to the hospital in a few minutes, after I made myself presentable and checked on the kids.

Once inside, I sprang into Mommy-mode, searching for the girls to make sure their school routine was still on track. They had just gotten up and were still in their zombie-trance while sitting at the kitchen table nibbling their breakfasts. I glanced at my watch and hurried my oldest along so we could make the bus in time.

Then my husband who works at the hospital, breezed into the room while absently, yet magically, tying his tie. “Why don’t I just bring your mom in with me on my way to work? That way you can get (daughter #1) on the bus and then you can join her.” Ahhh. Now THAT’s why I married him! Perfect solution. Daughter #2 who was in preschool, would get the day off and hang with me.

As the bus pulled away, I piled my youngest daughter into the car and we made our way to the Urgent Care center. Inside, I found my mom’s room and saw her laying on a stretcher, in her ultra-fashionable hospital “jonnie,” with my husband at her side. He leaned in to tell me, “She’s been crying.” and then off he went to see his 7:30 patient. He kissed me on the cheek, and disappeared out the door.

My heart melted when I saw my mom laying there. The familiar role-reversal I had felt with my dad had suddenly crept into the room as suddenly she seemed childlike to me. Her eyes glistened with tears. I went over and hugged her. “Why are you crying?” I softly asked. She swallowed hard and then whispered, “I guess because it just hit me what happened. It kinda shakes you up a bit.”

The doctor came in and examined her. I saw her wince in pain as he poked and prodded. A fall at any age can make someone sore; for someone in their 80’s, it takes on even greater severity. I bit my lip, much like I do when my daughters have to get a shot. By the time he got to her elbow, it had swelled up even more and he checked the site and saw that her skin was badly torn. “I can’t stitch it because the skin is so thin there. I’ll have to put some Steri-strips on it,” he said.

I noticed her right eye was now a lovely shade of lavender. “You see that color on her eye, doctor?” I said straight-faced, “You can’t even FIND that color eyeshadow in stores these days!” He stopped his robotic routine, looked at me and then laughed. I liked him already.

He ordered a CT scan of her head, as well as an x-ray of her elbow and her hip that was sore.

Please, God, don’t let anything be broken.

Daughter #2 and I settled in for a long wait. We told jokes. We traded silly bands. We thumb-wrestled while my mom was wheeled in and out for tests.

I texted pics and updates to my six siblings. I tried to sort out all the medical terminology so I could sound slightly informed when reporting the latest.

All the tests came out fine. No fractures. No broken hips. No serious injury. She was just badly bruised. She will likely be sore for a good number of days. Luckily, it turned out to be just a scare. Thank God. The nurse bandaged her up with lots of gauze. “Look, Josie!” I said, “My mommy’s becoming a Mummy!” She let out a belly laugh. Our spirits began to lift.

I helped her get dressed and tried to pry my phone out of the chubby little hands of my 5 year-old. “You know mom,” she said. “I really deserve a sticker for being such a good girl.” She was right. She was a trooper. It’s Sticker Time!

We made our way out to my car and off we went! Then it occurred to me that we would be driving past my dad’s nursing home on the way back. “What do you think, Mom?” I asked. “Are you up for a quick visit with dad? You have to see him on your anniversary!” She smiled. “That would be nice.” she replied.

I called from the car to ask an aide to bring my dad down to the lobby since our visit would be a brief one. They wheeled him down (he uses a wheelchair when he needs to go long distances) and into the room where we were sitting. He took one look at my mom and lit up as he always did. “My DARLING!” he gushed. She walked over to him and bent in closely. They kissed sweetly.

“Guess what today is?” she asked him. “What?” he said, eagerly. “Today is our ANNIVERSARY!” she beamed. His mouth opened wide. “Really?!? How many years?” he asked. She answered, “62!” He looked at her and said, “WOW! Happy Anniversary, my darling!” and kissed her hand.

They sat together for a while. They held hands. They smiled at one another. They didn’t even have to talk. Suddenly, whatever worry or concern – or bruise – life handed them, seemed to melt away. I just stood back and watched them, grateful that I could share the moment with them.

With both parents safe and sound, and as I prepared to re-enter my world, it occurred to me that I would not soon forget the events of this day. It began in the dark hours with confusion, panic and worry. But as the day evolved, it morphed into something beautiful.

As my friend Kristen reminded me just this afternoon, there is a gift in all we experience. Even the difficult times. As I stood in the same room with my parents today, everything dwarfed in comparison to the love they shared. When they are together, there is no such thing as Alzheimer’s. Or injury. Or even old age. All the bad stuff just evaporates.

There is just love.

And it still burns bright, 62 years later.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad.

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.

That’s how he rolls.

What a difference a week makes.

The other day, as I made my way down the hall to my dad’s room at The Inn (my dad’s term for his nursing home), I was greeted by one of his nurses who I’ve become quite friendly with. (One of the perks of having a family member who has been a resident for several years is that many of his caregivers have become like extended family.)

This particular nurse is a pal. When she saw me walk towards my dad’s room, she smiled brightly at me and said, “Guess what? He’s doing GREAT!” She then reported that much of his flu-like illness had resolved and he was feeling much better. His fever was gone. His appetite had bounced back. Vitals were all good. I thanked her and breathed a sigh of relief. Buoyed by the good news, I made my way toward his room.

The lights were off and I found him lying down in his bed. When he heard me walk in, he propped open his eyes in surprise. Then I heard his familiar booming voice exclaim, “Well, HONEY! What a surprise! I’m so glad to see you!” He struggled to sit up on his own. “Hi, Dad! You look like you’re feeling better!” I said. He nodded and said, “Oh, YES! I’m feeling much better!”

I walked over to him and offered my hand to help him sit up a bit, and instead he grabbed it, brought it up to his lips and gave it his signature kiss. “You look just beautiful, today!” he proclaimed, beaming at me. At that moment, one of his aides breezed into the room to drop something off. As she turned around to leave, he stopped her and said proudly, “Do you know my youngest daughter? She’s #7! Isn’t she a beauty?” The aide who has known me for over 5 years, nodded and smiled patiently, then said, “Oh yes, Ed. I know your daughter very well!” She and I exchanged good-natured eye-rolls and she walked out.

Great to have you back, Dad.

Next month my dad turns 88. He once told me, “I’m not old, I’m chronologically gifted.” Well, anyone who is “chronologically gifted” combined with a rather complicated health history can sometimes be rendered incapacitated by a brief illness. Add to that the challenge of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, and one shouldn’t be surprised to see a period of decline. We are fortunate he has started the slow process of bouncing back after a few weeks under the weather.

I know better than to count him out just yet. It wouldn’t be the first time he pulled a fast one on us.

Six years ago, when my siblings and I made the heart-wrenching decision to bring him to The Inn, we struggled with the idea that we were “putting him out to pasture.” But he had become too ill for my mother to continue to care for him. Like many spouses who desperately try to manage the care of a partner when they become ill, my mother put my father’s health needs before her own. She became very ill as a consequence, requiring temporary hospitalization. It was then that we realized we had to step in and find a long-term solution when we discovered how my dad’s memory impairment and physical problems required around-the-clock care. My mother hadn’t wanted to alarm us, and so she had been caring for him quietly and with dignity, as best as she could. But the time had come.

When we brought him to The Inn, it was the hardest day of my life. I couldn’t do it. My oldest sister, a nurse, bravely took him over while I spent most of the day wracked with guilt and feeling like I was in mourning.

But when he arrived at The Inn, he began to thrive. He started to exercise and participate in group activities. Being around people reinvigorated him. His memory even improved. He regained his love of woodworking through taking classes and even authored a column in The Inn’s newsletter entitled, “Ed’s Famous Last Words,” where he would interview residents and staff on various topics he chose.

(The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.)

As my dad rebounds from this illness, he has an incredible army of aides and physical therapists by his side whose main responsibility is to help residents reclaim and maintain their independence. The only problem now seems to be that he has gotten way too used to his shiny new companion: his wheelchair.

In fact, I do believe he’s smitten!

No longer does he have to labor with trying to navigate his walker, which exerts great energy and exhausts him fairly easily. The wheelchair makes his life very easy. Too easy.

We want that thing GONE. 

The other day when I was with him, he rhapsodized about how great his wheelchair was. It was as if he were talking about a new lover. “It’s just so convenient!” he told me. “I just get pushed wherever I need to go. It’s really great!”

Delicately, I said, “That’s nice, dad, but you know the wheelchair is just temporary. We really want you to go back to your walker when you get your strength back.”

He looked at me with confusion. “Why would I want to do THAT?” I went on to explain that the more he sits in a wheelchair, the more deconditioned he becomes. I went into great detail about how important it is to remain active and “upright.” His walker gives him much-needed exercise. It keeps him young! (Throwing him a bone about retaining his youth is always a crowd-pleaser!)

He thought about it for a minute, nodded and then said, “But it’s really great! I get pushed wherever I want to go!”

This may be harder than I thought.

Well, what can I say? My dad always did have a knack for finding the shortcut.

But then again, he’s “chronologically gifted.”

So for now, that’s how he rolls.

The Silent Warrior

My dad has fallen ill the last few weeks. He has developed a flu-like illness that has depleted much of his energy and drained his typical charm and charisma. It’s not unusual this time of year in nursing homes. Lots of bugs go around and it’s something we’ve learned to navigate around. ‘Tis the season. Like everything else, you just adjust. And you wash your hands.

A lot.

When I have visited him this week, I have found him listless and in bed with a new companion by his side. A wheelchair. He has been too unsteady to stand, so for his own safety, he has been transported here and there with these new wheels. I noticed his walker was folded and leaning against a wall in the background. Times seem to be changing.

His typical bright greeting to me has been replaced with a groggy and sleep-filled smile. My attempts at breaking out in cheerleader-mode to get him out of bed, (“Hey, DAD! Let’s get up and go for a walk!”) have been met with heavy sighs and “Oh, honey, not today.”

I really shouldn’t complain. My dad turns 88 next month so I guess I should give the guy a break. I would be knocked out, too, if the flu came calling at that age. But easier said than done.

I’ve spent a lot of time at The Inn (his term for his nursing home) lately because I’ve got my eye on him. I know that at his age and debilitated condition, a simple flu-like illness can wreak unexpected havoc. People his age don’t bounce back so easily. So I’ve been creeping around, hanging out with his nurses and aides (who I’ve come to know and have become quite friendly with) and hovering around The Inn as I negotiate visits inbetween carpool pick-ups and kid playdates. 

We’ve dutifully added the “God bless, Grandpa” phrase to our nightly prayers and I’ve been emailing my six brothers and sisters – several who live in the midwest – to give them updates and funny anecdotes, so they can feel part of the process, even though we all know they sometimes feel helplessly out of the loop when my dad becomes ill.

I’ve tried to be a good daughter, fun-loving mother, engaging wife, and available friend, but truth be told, when an illness or problem strikes with a parent, things can get a little topsy-turvey. I try to figure out where I am needed most and race there accordingly. It’s a juggling act that I am sure is not unique to my family. It can be stressful, but I do not like pity parties, so I will not be inviting myself to this one.

But surprisingly, this story doesn’t belong to my dad. Not today. For I’ve discovered there is a power-player far more important right now. This person remains largely in the background, yet wields great strength and influence.

This person has been my father’s companion, best friend, partner in crime, caregiver, and steadfast supporter for the last 62 years. It is my mother that I tip my hat to for her bravery and unwavering love for my dad.

For the last 6 years since my dad has been at The Inn (where he struggles with the slow-motion thief that they call Alzheimer’s,) my mother has quietly and without fanfare, visited him almost daily. She often joins him for their lunch date in the Inn’s “restaurant” (dining room) and walks with him afterward upstairs to the third floor when his afternoon nap calls his name.

My mother lives in town, a short 5 minutes from The Inn, in a single-story home directly behind her church. She patiently answers her phone when my dad calls her repeatedly, asking when she will be coming over to visit. When I have been at her house and the phone rings, I hear her cheerfully answer the phone as if it is the first time she heard his voice that day, instead of the seventh.

Now, that’s love.

A few weeks ago, I popped over to visit my dad after lunch and found my mother in his room “tucking him in” for his afternoon siesta. I don’t know why, but I stood there in the doorway for a while without letting her know I was there. I just stood and watched.

I saw my mother lovingly and gracefully pull his covers up around his neck as he lay motionless in bed. She smiled sweetly as he began to softly snore. I watched her pat his shoulder gently and stand there staring at him, satisfied that he was safely launched into sleep-ville. It wasn’t unlike a mother checking on her child. It was pure sweetness.

With my dad’s present illness, my mother was discouraged from visiting him for a few days so that she didn’t  get sick herself. She complied, though it was hard for her. I kept up my daily visits so he wouldn’t get lonely and every day he would ask me where she was and why she wasn’t visiting him anymore. When I explained it was because he had been sick, he couldn’t understand. He’d think about it and then say, “But she always comes to see me every day.” I replied reassuringly, “Maybe she’ll come tomorrow, Dad.” He’d nod and drift away.

After 5 or so days, I could see that both my parents were really missing each other. I spoke with my dad’s nurse who mentioned that perhaps they could visit in a “common area” like in the living area downstairs in the lobby. It was a large, ventilated area that would be much safer than her spending her visit up on a closed floor.

So I called my mother and told her she could come over that day to see him. I decided not to tell my dad. I thought it would be a nice surprise.

Yesterday was the day. I went to see my dad right after I dropped my daughter off at school. He had just finished breakfast. I wheeled him over to the couch in the lobby and pulled up a chair next to him. The first thing he said to me was, “Have you heard from your mother?” I said, “Yes, dad. I talked to her a little while ago. I’m sure she’ll visit you soon.” He looked at me pensively and said, “I sure hope so. She used to visit me every day. I don’t know why, but I don’t feel like myself when she’s away.”

I bit the inside of my cheek to chase away the tears welling in my eyes.

15 minutes later, I glanced out the window to see my mom’s 2001 white Honda Accord slowly creep into the parking lot. I watched as she took her walker out of her car and moved slowly to the main entrance.

A few steps later and she was inside The Inn. I met her at the door and gestured to where my dad was sitting in the next room over. She walked right over to him and stood in front of him. When he looked up and saw her, his face lit up with the widest and most joyful smile. “My DARLING!” he shouted exuberantly. They embraced slowly. She straightened his collar and sat down in the chair across from him. I watched as an immediate look of peace washed over his face.

All was well again.

I remember thinking, in that moment, how incredibly lucky I am. The greatest gift my parents ever gave me is the love they have for one another. My mother loves my father unflinchingly. She is like a silent warrior, forever in the background, yet always available at a moment’s notice. 

No matter who her husband becomes as he is molded and shaped by memory loss and occasional illness, she is there. She loves him without fail.

It is the greatest love story I’ve ever known.

A gift from God.

I am grateful.

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