When you tell a story, you always leave something out. It’s necessary, this kind of omission, because some things don’t fit into the narrative you’ve created. You have to shape a story and smooth its edges; something, inevitably, has to go.
A couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about taking my father to the urologist, I failed to mention something important. I wrote about the oddity that I should be with him when his mind has fled, since he never particularly liked me when I was a child. What I didn’t write about was what he said to me on two separate occasions during this outing. Both times, he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m sorry.”
What do you make of this? He doesn’t know me. His mind is a series of Alzheimer’s snarls and tangles. He never says anything that’s appropriate to the occasion — and hasn’t for years. But there he was, saying something that seemed to be aimed directly at me, that seemed to be of real concern to him. Where did that come from?
Today, I sat with him while they had the Thanksgiving dinner at his facility. We sat and held hands and sang, off and on, to the music a pianist was playing in the background. Across from us was an elderly man. He didn’t live there, the elderly man told me, he lived elsewhere. That night, he would be driving to El Paso. He’d be leaving at midnight.
Eating the familiar food — the turkey, dressing, green beans and cranberry sauce — I thought about the earlier Thanksgivings of my life. The years, in the 1950s and 1960s, when my parents were still strong and aware and took my sister and me to Oklahoma. Mother always made frozen cranberries, a dish that invariably brought her compliments.
So many of the family members who attended those dinners are now dead. It makes me think that, when you get to be a certain age, you finally have the awareness of the tremendous, churning wheel that life is. You can see those early years of your own life rapidly receding into the horizon. Soon, those memories, that history, those people, will completely vanish from view. No one living will ever recall that they mattered or they happened. When you’re young, of course, you never think that some of the constants in your life will eventually disappear — or that you will someday be nostalgic for that familiarity, even if it didn’t make you happy at the time.
I talked to Gabriella, who manages the house where my father lives. She says the elderly man has talked about going to El Paso for years, the same way my father used to talk about going to Tulsa. He’ll never go now, of course; it’s just a recurring memory, a dream that plays out in his mind.
I also met a man who’s my age who’s lost his mind to dementia, and another man whose wife has Alzheimer’s and bustles around the house talking to people. In some ways, I usually think, it’s almost worse when someone you care about has Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages. They still retain much of their personality and individuality; they’re still recognizable, enough to fool you now and then, but they’re not the same. You have to keep telling yourself that, reminding yourself not to be misled.
I kissed my father good-bye. He didn’t apologize for anything this time. He just smiled at me.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Ruth, you don’t know how much these posts mean to me. My Dad’s Alzheimer’s is in what I think is probably a middle stage. He still has some moments of semi-lucidity, but he is starting to ask to “go home.” He’s still living in the same house he’s lived in for the last 20 years. We’re not sure where his mind thinks home is. He’s so sad and depressed now, I think it might be better when he doesn’t know anything. Is that a horrible way to feel?
Thanks again for writing about this.
I’m glad you find the posts helpful, Cynthia. It’s such an incredibly painful topic to me — confusing and lacking in any hope. I guess we all muddle through this the best we can, but it’s hard.
I think the lack of hope is the worst part.
I think there are a number of us with father issues;wanting to
hear some things, needing to hear others, getting, instead, long
awkward silences. I know I still see my dad in the mirror and hear him
as he tells me “that is not the way I taught you”. I think he heard and saw the same from his dead dad.I like that you hear what you need to hear fromm the silences with yours.Here is a poem you may know that I usually haul out sometimes in June to celebrate Fathers Day
forgiving our fathers
by dick lourie
maybe in a dream: he’s in your power
you twist his arm but you’re not sure it was
he that stole your money you feel calmer
and you decide to let him go free
or he’s the one (as in a dream of mine)
I must pull from the water but I never
knew it or wouldn’t have done it until
I saw the street-theater play so close up
I was moved to actions I’d never before taken
maybe for leaving us too often or
forever when we were little maybe
for scaring us with unexpected rage
or making us nervous because there seemed
never to be any rage there at all
for marrying or not marrying our mothers
for divorcing or not divorcing our mothers
and shall we forgive them for their excesses
of warmth or coldness shall we forgive them
for pushing or leaning for shutting doors
for speaking only through layers of cloth
or never speaking or never being silent
in our age or in theirs or in their deaths
saying it to them or not saying it –
if we forgive our fathers what is left
Very interesting. It does take a long while to finally have the long view. Have you ever read or seen The Long Christmas Dinner by Thornton Wilder? It’s the same family at the same holiday table for generation after generation.
My father died while trying on clothes at a store. I wonder what he might have been like if the aneurysm had been caught before it burst. He was a little forgetful. Would he have lost his mind and been lost for years and years and would we be thinking that it would have been better if he’d died suddenly, like while trying on clothes?