I don't know when I lost my dad. That's the term, isn't it, for experiencing, for suffering, the death of a parent?
Strange. He has not passed away, that is he has not died, but I lost him some time ago, I just don't know when.
I lost him slowly, painfully, sadly, in fits and starts, days hopeful and days resigned. Each day unpredictable, the months ahead clearly known.
My dad. What a great guy, what a wonderful father. So smart. Hard working and determined, kind and wise. And funny. That may be what I miss the most. Not knock your socks off funny, not rolling on the floor laughing uncontrollably funny, but chuckle funny, little quip funny, enjoy the ironies of life funny, silent smile and twinkle in the eye funny.
Dementia is not funny. And dementia is what took my dad away.
Conversations became a bit of a struggle. Grasping for a word or asking a question again became more frequent. Slowly confusion progressed. And progressed yet further as it became clear what was happening.
He began to talk about going to a nursing home and then began to request it. Unsaid was the reason but I knew he thought himself too much of a burden for my mom to continue to carry at home. She, of course, would have none of it; one does not easily surrender after six decades of marriage.
Medications perhaps helped him for a time, maybe, so hard to really tell. I made it a point to visit regularly with my dad, and with my mom. There was no way to know how he would be; he might doze off, lose track of a conversation, be mostly silent, or simply say, "I don't know."
Late January of last year, or was it early February, I visited. Caprice was welcome that day, my dad remarkably sharp and animated. The three of us spent a wonderful afternoon together, the stark New England winter sun brightening the room in which we had spent so much time over so many years.
My dad told stories, my folks reminisced about times in their lives together, their newly married life, buying their first house and building their second. We talked about my birthday parties and going fishing. My mom enjoyed the return, if just for an afternoon, of the man who is her husband and I cherished my folks and their lives together. And my dad was funny, just those same little remarks, the same satisfied smile and brightened eyes.
Finally, as the daylight began to dim it was time to leave.
Usually I said my goodbyes to my dad while he remained sitting on the couch, a hug, a kiss on the cheek. Parkinson's had made getting up and walking difficult for him. But that day he rose up and walked out to the front door with my mom and me. We said our goodbyes there, a hug and a kiss for my mom, and for my dad.
"Today was a great day," he said.
A few months later he was in the nursing home as he had foreseen, his dementia having accelerated, his care finally too difficult for my mom. My visits were unhappy despite the excellence of the home and of his care. I did not like going there, the long walk past the nursing station down the long, shiny floored corridor, into the day room where he sat among many, his eyes dull and his smile without energy. Conversations were brief, confused, and mostly meaningless.
One day, he had been at the nursing home a few months, I visited. The visit proceeded as usual as I cried silently inside and he babbled on, perhaps not aware of who he was, where he was, who I was. Then, from someplace amidst tangled tau proteins and amyloid encrusted neurons, he suddenly sat straight upright in his chair and in a strong clear voice, looking me in the eye with his own eyes alive, said, "I love you!" and reached out and put one hand on each of my cheeks, pulled me toward him and kissed me. He sat back for a moment and then did the same thing again, his voice forceful and determined, his touch both strong and gentle.
And that was it. A few moments of return from wherever the vanished mind resides as if to offer a postscript farewell, his clarity and purpose done. His dementia of course persists and there is essentially nothing left of the man who was my father.
So when did I lose my dad?
It was only months after that nursing home visit that I realized, with a sad certainty, that I had lost him as certainly as if his mortal body had died; sometime after the "great day" visit but just when I cannot say.
Which is strange.
What about the five stages of grief?
Originally appeared in Avalon Literary Review.