“Whoa!” I jumped up off my beach chair and began waving my hands in the air over my head, trying to get his attention. “Slow down!!!!” I did a thumbs down move designed to get him to cut the speed. My Dad had just barreled past the five mile an hour buoys in the bay at a fast clip and brushed too-near a kayaker in our busy August bay who was shepherding three swimmers. As he raced past her, oblivious of the speed, she set her paddle down and turned her head. I could not see her expression up close but her body language said everything. My Dad was flying, but the look on his face was priceless. He was in heaven. For him, the open water was the last place in his life, the last place on earth, that he had any autonomy. It was a sunny day and puffy white clouds were just beginning to poke over the tops of the mountains. The lake was calm, his grandkids were on the beach, the wind was in the wisps of his hair and plastered across his face was a big, self-satisfied grin. My Dad has Dementia, or maybe it will soon be diagnosed as Alzheimers. I don’t much care what the term is. He is, little by little, being erased. The strong parts, the parts that cared for me and supported me are now fading. It is the three of us, his daughters, who now care for him with our Mom. Finally, a few yards beyond our raft, he saw me with my arms signaling wildly. His face fell, childlike in disappointment. I could tell he wasn’t sure exactly what he had done wrong, only that something was wrong. I was angry, maybe overly angry because I had been his last advocate. I’d been the one arguing the case to keep his dignity intact for just a few more weeks till summer came to an end. We’d taken away his driver’s license on the road, stripped him of independence in so many other areas. He’d always been a careful boater and I’d argued that if we kept watch on the shore, or volunteered to accompany him on each trip, that we could make it through this summer. By next summer it would be a whole different story. I admonished automatically in the same tone my mother uses, like an adult patronizes a child. “Dad, you were going too fast. Dad, you almost hit the kayak. Dad, there is a five mile an hour limit.” He deflated. “Well, I guess this is my, my swan song,” he stammered. His face was cloudy, his head down like a recalcitrant child. I marveled that he had pulled that phrase out of nowhere. That was a flash of my old, eloquent Dad. I argued with my sisters. “Lee, he cannot drive the boat anymore. No more boat. He is going to kill or maim someone,” said my youngest sister Meg. “Well, kill isn’t good but maim might be acceptable,” I said, to break the ice. We McConaughys were known for our gallows humor, always a wonderful diffuser to deal with strong emotions and overcharged moments. “Yeah, I guess if he just clipped off an ankle on a swimmer that wouldn’t be too bad,” said Nancy, rolling her eyes. “We’re just going to have to find a way around this, “ I said. “We need to have someone go out with him when he goes. That way we can gently remind him of the speed limit.” “We have to hide his keys,” said my sister Meg. And so, because it was two against one, we put them in a secret place in the boathouse. This way he would have to find one of us to remember where his keys were. The next day, by the time he found me, he was anguished, all riled up. He told me he had been looking for his keys for a long time. “Lets check here,” I said reaching into a coffee can. “Maybe you put them here,” I tried to keep my voice non-chalant and level, despite the deception. He looked pained, searching his memory, I assumed, for why the man who always removed his shoes indoors and carefully hung his keys on a peg each afternoon would ever put them in a rusty coffee can. He jangled the keys in his palm. “Dad, I’d love to go,” I said. “Would you take me?” It was the last thing I felt like doing. I’m not a huge boat person. Nerdy, I know, but I’d much rather read a book. I had just gotten down to the dock and spread out my towel, pulled my novel out of the beach bag. I unclipped the ropes from the dock cleat and we puttered out past the five-mile-an-hour buoys. We crossed to the other side of the lake. Sitting at the bow of the boat I helped him see the markers, gently using hand signals to indicate the rocks he needed to go around. He nodded each time. This kind of muscle memory would probably be the last to go in some ways. He’d been driving this bright yellow Boston Whaler and its aluminum predecessor before that for decades. He knew the lake and its craggy shoreline instinctively. We glided past the multi-colored sails of Sunfishes and poked into a deep bay where a turtle hopped off a log. We stared up at the face of a cliff where once, as a young man, he had climbed and almost perished before he grabbed for a small root sticking out of the rock. We had made him tell that story to us a hundred times as kids. “You wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for that root,” he’d say, sweeping his arm up toward the cliff. And we’d all stare upward, imagining my father, young and muscled, pulling himself up the face of the cliff with sheer will. He had taken us to this spot a hundred times by boat. Now, a mile across the lake from our own beach, I felt the wind tousle my hair, felt my shoulder muscles relax. I looked back at my Dad, so proud and in control at the steering wheel. This was heartbreaking, this slow leaving, this long and sputtering good-bye. What did he remember? What had he forgotten? Later that night he grabbed me and pulled me to him, for the moment confusing my name with that of my sisters, but the emotion is clear. “I love you so much,” he says to me. “I am so proud of you.” “I love you too Dad,” I say, breathing in the faint mothball scent of his summer shirt. Its muscle memory for us both.
Entries in Summer (8)
It was a summer of interruption. “Summerus Interruptus,” I called it and I can’t remember another summer like it. Maybe its because there are four kids and two dogs and every time someone walks by our lawn the dogs bark, as if to defend their turf.
Maybe it's because my Dad’s dementia has progressed and so the three of us daughters shuttle him back and forth between our summer cottages to give my Mom a break. We want to spend some quality time with him before we all fade in his mind, and because this is what family does.
Maybe it's because even though I am supposed to be writing, and answering emails, I find myself drifting out to my beloved garden, the dahlias of all shapes, sizes and colors, the pesky crabgrass poking through the mulch. These are easy solutions to easy problems; pluck and they are gone. The chapter I’m writing? Not so easy. On day two of creation, I’ve already deleted most of it.
The problem of the dementia, the slow erasing of my Dad has no easy solution. We will watch, and help, repeat and explain and there is nothing at all to make it better. We are voyeurs to the demise of a man we love and the heartbreaking burden on my mother, who has raised the three of us and now, in her golden years, is caring for a toddler-like person again.
When the phone rang on my last full day of summer camp for the kids, I was deep in my emails, deep in crossing things off lists. I almost didn’t answer it.
“Lee,” my mother said, and I could hear the strain in her voice. “I’d like to ask you a favor.” My mother is a woman who doesn’t like to ask anyone for anything if she can help it. She is, by nature, a giver.
“Sure, Mom,” I kept my voice even but I rolled my eyes. Another interruption. All of these emails blinking at me, the people waiting for answers to questions, the fundraiser for the wounded soldiers, the plane reservations for vacation I had to untangle. “This is your mother,” I told myself. “Calm down, slow down, it will all get done.”
“Dad was going to trim my hair, like he always does. But he is feeling dizzy, he bent over in the yard and now he is lying down. I’ve got my scissors here and wet hair. Can I come over?”
“Of course,” I said. And it wasn’t until later that I realized the right thing to do would have been to go to her. I was too entangled in my own work and needs.
“Do you have some coffee for Dad?” she asked. And I realized that she would be bringing him, like a child, in tow.
“Come on over,” I said enthusiastically. “But I can’t guarantee I’m a great haircutter.”
In college I had a brisk business cutting men’s hair. I set up shop in the bathroom that connected the boy’s dorm to the girls, a feature that was a constant source of amusement for us young coeds.
Something about cutting my own mother’s hair, however, made me feel slightly nervous. I suppose that I wanted to do it perfectly.
A few moments later I heard her car on the gravel and her small, slight figure shuffled in. She had a makeshift cape of dry cleaning bag on her shoulders, an old comb, missing some teeth and a pair of hair cutting scissors.
I settled my Dad down, trying not to feel the pain in the look of defeat on his face. I gave him water and urged him to drink, fed him the leftover French toast, now cold, from my daughters’ pre-camp breakfast.
Then I went outside where my mother was patiently waiting for me to cut her hair.
‘I don’t know, Mom,” I said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be very good.
“Oh, its just a straight edge,” she waved my concerns away. The scissors were dull and I went upstairs to get my own haircutting scissors. She held a hand mirror out in front of her to watch.
There was something so heartbreakingly intimate about that act. I touched my mother’s hair, barely gray at 76. I was doing for her what she had done for me and my sisters for all those years when we were really young. I suppose she’d cut our hair at home as she is doing it now, out of frugality and ease.
“Its just a simple, straight across cut,” she said. My mother has never been one for vanity. I love her for that.
“I can take you to get it cut in town,” I said. “It was only $17.00 for me.
She smiled with her lips closed and shook her head. “Your father has been doing this for years,” she said. “It’s just fine.”
I thought about the act of my father cutting my mother’s hair. I wondered if, with his shaking hands, he would be able to do it going forward. I thought about my mother, who had once been told that the future was secure. Now I knew that she worried about the cost of this long, slow slide with dementia, the agonizing lingering of a partial person, the vast cost of health care and nursing homes.
I did a decent job. And then I looked her square in the face to make sure the sides were even and gently sloped the way she had requested. What had started as a dutiful task had become an act of love, a care giving of the ultimate caregiver.
No child is ever prepared when the roles reverse, sometimes, gently, like a beautiful slow dance, other times in an instant, the aftermath of an accident or illness. My sisters and I have learned to be the parents at times, to ease the fears the way my mother and father once snuck into our rooms to banish the monsters under the bed.
I am taking care now. I am noticing these small moments, trying to slow time down. I see these experiences as gifts of grace rather than inconveniences, interruptions in my busy day.
“It looks great,” she says enthusiastically, positioning the plastic hand mirror to see the back of her head. My Dad finishes the last of his coffee, rises from the stool steadily and beams at me. It seems the earlier events have been forgotten.
“You just come back if you see any strays,” I said. And they both bent to hug me.
Well. Summer's over. I mean it isn't really over, it's not yet Labor Day. Outside it's as steamy as a Turkish Bath and even the dogs are having dog days this August. They are sleeping, listless in the heat and without the energy to bark. But I'm home. I've left our summer cottage, driven back down south with reams of clothes and papers and food in freezer bags with melting ice. I'm home and I'm grumpy and a little bit snitty. Did I accomplish what I wanted to this summer? I had lofty dreams about getting lots of writing done in the three hour stretch my kids were at camp, or the early mornings when i could sit by my computer with a ghetto latte (lots of microwaved milk not frothed and a tiny bit of java.) But I did. I accomplished so much that I wanted to. I hiked, I watched movies with my kids, I answered far too many emails and flirted with facebook, only to be driven back by the volumes of messages I didn' t feel like answering. We finished that jigsaw puzzle of previous blog fame and we swam and laughed and cooked and ate. But I didn't write. Not much anyway. Every time I sat down to tackle something on my list, there was some kind of interruption. And many of those interruptions were from my parents, most specifically my Dad. I'd settle in front of the computer and through the screen door, cheery as a bluebird, I would hear his voice call out to me "Helloooooooooo." For just a moment, a part of my heart would sink. "I have three precious hours," the Type A part of my brain would scream. And then the dutiful daughter part of me would muzzle it, put a pillow over those thoughts and push down. And then they would stop. I would stop. "No regrets," I would tell myself. "No regrets." As the summer progressed, my father and I fell into a regular morning ritual of coffee and chatting as he made me the half-way stop on his daily walk down to the general store to be fussed over by the ladies at the coffee counter. Each morning was the same. Ground Hog Day. He'd stomp up the steps, come in, announce how winded he was from walking up the hill and then sit. In the same tone I use with my children I'd chide him for not drinking enough water, put a full glass in front of him and tell him to rest, maybe pull off his sweater as the day heated up. We'd sit and talk about the same things, the weather, when I was leaving, when my husband was coming, where the girls were. I'd feel myself unwind, relax, the tension would leave my shoulders. This was my Dad. He has dementia which means that every week or month or so we can almost feel the little pieces of him slipping away, breaking off. Dementa is a slippery eel. Some days he is more present and with it. Other days he will have a hard time getting a sentence out. He can often form the words, I think he knows them in his head, but they come out wrong or jumbled. He hesitates a lot more now, more even than last month, unsure of what will come out. In those moments I see the mask slip, the casual jaunty smile he wears and has always worn, of confidence. Underneath the mask I see terror, pure, clean fear at what is happening and what the future holds. I am powerless. I'm powerless to do anything as he asks me the same questions over and over in the span of 15 minutes. I can listen and answer patiently and pour him some more coffee and smile at him in that loving way daughters smile at their Dads. This much I can do. And as my mind flicks to all the things I need to get done, the dentist appointment to rechedule for my daughter, the school forms so Cathryn can play pre-season soccer, the college shopping list I need to put together for my son and the writing, always the writing, in the back of my mind, I force myself to relax. "This is what summer is for," I tell myself. "It may be his last summer here and these moments, this time in the kitchen, these are the things that really count. You don't want to have any regrets. You want to feel secure that you spent the last good years letting him know he was safe, loved, cared for, before he slips away." It's the very least my sisters and I can do. It's the legacy of love. And so here I am. Summer is over. l'll be planning a trip to see both my parents soon in their independent living facility a state away. But those visits aren't the same as summer. Summer is the warmth of the dock, a cold plunge in the lake, delighted screams from the raft and all of our family around. Summer is freedom, roaming, his daily walk, the sunshine and the smell of pine and moon, of the July rains and my Dad's once carefully tended geraniums. The other months of the year, lived out in their small apartment, make life seem diminished, circumscribed. There are smells of new carpet and industrial cooking in the building. It is a place to live, not a home. It is not summer. I am home now, buried under a mountain of things to do. But I have no regrets. No regrets.