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)