The Disappearance and Surprise Reappearance of my Dad
Florida, 5:30 pm.
My dad was relatively calm today with beautiful, albeit brief periods of lucidity about his ear, and how it feels to lose an ear to cancer. Dad tells us he’s grateful to the plastic surgeon, and how it’s better to lose an ear than die from cancer. We agree with him, and I glance at my sister. I know we’re thinking the same thing-Dad is back. That’s what we think he would have said before he was diagnosed with dementia which turned into Alzheimer’s. We know this is only a brief reappearance of our father. Soon, Alzheimer’s will overtake him like a spiritual possession, and we won’t know who he is once again.
Tonight, my father isn’t asking the same questions over and over, and hasn’t asked about his hospital stay. He’s leading the conversation…and it is a conversation. Dad asks for a cold beer before dinner, and we hand him an O’Doul’s, a non-alcoholic beer, in a nice cold glass. He doesn’t seem to notice the difference, and we make sure to shove the green and white beer can down deep into the trashcan in case he grows suspicious of the switch.
As Dad speaks, I feel myself slipping out of my current daughter/caregiver role into grown daughter role, and I realize I can’t do that any longer-he can’t be trusted. As much as we, his daughters, would love to have our independent father back, and my step-mom misses her take-charge husband, it’s never going to happen. He has advanced Alzheimer’s; it’s done. Last night, Dad didn’t know who we were. He thought I was a nurse named Carol, but tonight he asks us about our husbands, and asks how the kids are doing. He’s in and out.
The next ten minutes confirm my fears-Dad pours his orange juice on top of the baked chicken thigh on his plate. My sister’s eyes grow as large as my own, and my jaw drops as the juice precariously reaches the edge of the plate, now mixed with tomato sauce. The dish would be called Poulet a l’orange without the tomato sauce, I think. I don’t move, but instinctively, my sister reaches for his plate, and my dad looks at her with clenched jaws. She backs off as he grips the plate with two hands. We still have bedtime to deal with, and we don’t want a bad night with him. It’s our last night alone with our father. My step-mom arrives in the morning. I can’t imagine how they will do when we’re gone. We must have the discussion of future care with our step-mom when she returns.
We sit patiently at the dining room while our father eats his chicken and spoons every last drop of orange juice off his plate. He has stopped talking, and seems to be in another world. At least he’s not a picky eater, I think. Thirty minutes later, Dad uses the toilet, brushes his teeth, and we give him the prescribed little blue pill to induce sleep, and he sits at the edge of the bed. I can tell he won’t go easy tonight. He wants us to leave his bedroom, and close the door. I have visions of him falling and hitting his head on the edge of the dresser or bedside table as he is still wobbly from the surgery. When we won’t leave his room, Dad opens the drawer of the bedside table, and takes out all the contents-his wallet, a set of keys, assorted papers, and his watch, setting them on the bed. It seems to be a show of contrariness or a need to control his environment. He says he doesn’t recognize the keys, and I’m confident they are keys from the old house. The keys and his watch go back into the drawer, and now he inspects all the papers one by one. I feel my patience wearing thin, it’s been a long, long day, but we stand in front of our father patiently waiting as he takes an inventory of his possessions. Finally, he is satisfied and the drawer is closed…only to be reopened seconds later. The inventory begins again. This happens three times. It seems interesting neither me or my sister loses our cool. I wonder if we’ve begun some bizarre contest to see who loses it first. We are both stubborn, but perhaps it’s more that we realize it’s our last night with our father, so we indulge him. I know very well if I were his full time caregiver, I would be more firm. Again, I’m thankful for my step-mom. I feel like a grandparent taking care of a grandchild for a week, and then flying home. I feel a bit of guilt and a bit of relief. I miss my house, my routine, my kids, and I have a book coming out in early December.
“Do any institutions or organizations have control of my money,” he asks us. It’s a good question.
“No, you and your wife control your money.” He seems satisfied with the lie, and the drawer is closed again. We are able to tuck him into bed. He has more questions, he says. We lean in.
“Do I have your contact information? I want you to write everything about yourselves, your husbands, your children, your jobs, and what you’ve accomplished in life.” Awesome question, Dad. We’ve done this for him many times over the years, and we’ll do it again as he loses every little book we make for him.
“It’s important to have this information in our personnel files, and we will teach you how to access and extract this information when the time comes. We won’t tolerate bad manners or excessive force when dealing with prisoners. Kindness and offers of gifts will encourage them to speak to their comrades who might be persuaded to join us.” Our eyebrows shoot up-we realize Dad is giving a military briefing; it goes on for an hour, maybe more. I am stunned beyond belief. He is an articulate, soft-spoken, and firm leader speaking to his troops or giving a briefing at the Pentagon where he worked for nearly twenty years after a thirty-year Army career. Did he give this speech in Vietnam?
My sister and I wished we’d taped our father’s speech/briefing. I am amazed at how much information is hidden and tucked into the recesses of his brain. We wonder what prompted the ‘outburst’, and then I remember…his military ID card was in his wallet. Did that jog his memory? For an hour or so, we saw a side of our father we never knew when we lived at home as young adults. Dad always left work at the office; we never discussed his jobs or his time in Vietnam. My ex-husband was a Vietnam vet, and I remember their deep conversations about the military and about war. We didn’t have those conversations with our father. I’m impressed, curious, and a bit thankful he didn’t go into any gruesome war stories tonight. I realize there’s a huge part of my father’s life I will never know about with Alzheimer’s destroying his brain; it wasn’t meant to be, but I’m grateful for the glimpse of my father tonight.
I’m thankful I listened well to the stories of my grandmothers, aunts, and my mother. My Puerto Rican family’s oral storytelling tradition birthed the idea of writing my historical novel, A Decent Woman. I wasn’t meant to write a book based on my father’s life; he was a private man, and didn’t open up to me-the women of my family opened up to me. I was meant to write A Decent Woman; all my life experiences have led me to this point. I inherited my father’s tenacity, stubborn streak, courage, and strength of character; that will help me see this book published.
NOTE: I am back in West Virginia tonight, and going through my editor’s final edits. A Decent Woman comes out December 12, 2014 with Booktrope Books.
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Thank you for taking this journey with me. Your prayers, kind notes, comments, and healing thoughts have meant a lot to my family. I will be back in Florida with my father and step-mom in a few months. Be well.