Dragging my father's dog to the Montfort always feels like such a chore.
I've borrowed my father in law's VW Bug to cart the old Labrador named Xena across town for a visit. This is something I've been doing for a few years now, and today at a balmy 32°C, I'm feeling selfish and resentful about it. The air conditioning in this car quit about the same year my father's heart did, and this car is hotter than the old Swamp Buggies I used to drive at work before the buses were air conditioned. All the windows are open, and the tufts of fur seem to suspend in the air for a thoughtful pause before they hit the hyperdive button and blast out of the vacuum of the open window. Xena is a gentle soul, but difficult to walk with and a seemingly neverending producer of fur.
We make the trip up to the fourth floor. My mother is chatting up the locals in the elevator. She's explaining herself and her dog to anyone who will listen. I'm quiet and wondering just how this visit will go.
"Hi Dad." my standard greeting. Consistent. Predictable. Familiar. He doesn't recognize me.
"Xena! Xena! Xena!" he bellows, smiling from ear to ear, laughing, almost hysterical.
Watching his dementia take hold over the years has been an education in humanity. His happiness at seeing his puppy in the hospital is profound and inspiring. It makes me feel so selfish at the resentment I felt in the car. Who could call this a chore when it makes the old man smile like this?
I used to get phone calls from dad when he was living at home. He'd just call to talk hockey. He was the crazy Sens fan, and I was his traitorous Maple Leafs loving son. We'd argue about roster moves, trades, and gossip. During the playoffs in the the early 2000's, sometimes he'd just call to swear at me and hang up. We've never had all that much in common, and hockey is what kept us talking. Hockey was really the only thing we had in common for years, to be honest.
As the years progressed the calls became stranger, but we always found something hockey related to argue about.
This past year the dementia has progressed to a point where he is no longer himself, for most of the time. It's such a hard thing to describe. The man who taught me to fish, taught me to drive, taught me to hammer a nail, no longer really knows just who I am. When he does recognize me, he bluffs through most of the conversation as the connection to Adult Me is not the Me he's thinking of when hears my name. To him, Ken is still a little boy riding around on his Big Wheel in the project. Dad's mind has him somewhere in late seventies or early eighties, living in the old neighborhood.
He knows he has adult kids, because he's repeatedly been told has adult kids. He doesn't really remember his grandkids, all those birthday parties at my house, or where he lives.
And, he doesn't remember hockey.
The dog is trying to get up into bed with him, and his laughter infects the entire room. My mom is going through the rituals of visitation. She is filling out his menu for the next few days, and building up some small talk to fill in the gaps between his laughter and his silence. Conversation in a hospital is very much centered around meals, pills, tests, and appointments. It's all about itineraries, when are things going to happen, and who you talked to. It's vapid, tedious talk that flirts around events and ignores any meaningful attempt at real conversation the way it used to be.
I decide to try again.
He looks at me, but I can see the vacancy in the words he's searching to say to me. I ask him if he knows who I am.
"You're the Police Inspector."
It's my turn to laugh. I have no idea where that one came from. I can't tell if he's being serious or just pulling my leg, but he's laughing again now too and looking directly into my eyes for the first time in a long time. For a minute I'm transported back into that boat on Bob's Lake, it's dawn, and we are having a staring contest while our fishing lines sit idly mocking us on the surface of the water. The silence said much more than words in that boat, as it does now.
It was in this boat that he explained to me how an engine works, a carefully prepared soliloquy that every dad seems to prepare on some topic they care about. I have found myself thinking those same words, preparing that same speech for my kids, who would likely be just as uninterested as I was when I heard it.
I'd love to hear it now.
We all understand what the patient is losing. That sense of self, those relationships, and the memories. From his side of the bed, it must be confusing and scary.Yes, he is slowly forgetting who he is. But the one thing people don't talk about with dementia is probably the hardest part for me.
His dementia is beginning to make us forget the man he was.
Dad is no longer that man in the boat. Dad is a conversation about care, meals, and trips to the Montfort with the dog. Sometimes he is a chore, and other times he is a silent cry. The legacy of who he really was is what dementia is stealing from all of us. There may be nothing wrong with my brain, but I too am forgetting him.
As we pack up the dog, and his dirty clothes, my mom leans over to give him a kiss. She explains that she'll be back tomorrow, she's taking the bus first thing.
He leans over and says "Bye Ken!"
Today I was the Police Inspector in jest.
Today I was Jim's son again, for a minute.