Grief Anticipated, Part 3 (See also “Sitting on the Tracks” and “A Sweet Elderly Couple”)
One Thursday in July, Dad’s brother-in-law Bill started driving down from Missouri just to visit him. I drove over that afternoon to see if I could help Mom with anything and to visit Dad, since it had been almost three weeks since I had been able to get to their town. When I got to his apartment, he was sound asleep and an aide woke him up. I had arrived half an hour before dinner, so he needed to be getting up anyway. He seemed weak, tired, and very, very old as we talked for a few minutes. I told him Uncle Bill was on his way to see him that evening or the next day. He had no idea who I meant. “Bill Green?” Nothing, even after I reminded him about Bill being his sister Lou’s husband. This lapse did not upset me. After all, they had not seen each other very often during the last several years. I understand about the dementia.
But Dad does not understand it. He hates not being able to remember things that he knows he should remember. He often tries to cover by pretending to recognize people or by making some excuse about why their name might have slipped his mind. This time he said, “Oh… I guess I never heard him called ‘Bill’ before,” though in over 60 years of close friendship he had never called Bill anything else. It hurt me to see Dad’s childlike vulnerability, so unlike the sharp, assured mind I was accustomed to. Still, I managed to maintain my warm, cheerful friendliness.
But despite his dementia, he did remember that I had been helping Mom, and thanked me sincerely for that. As we inched our way toward the dining room he turned toward me and said, “You know what you are? You’re a Caldwell.”
“Thanks, Dad! That’s an honor,” I told him, and meant it. My detachment began to slip a little. I hated to leave him; his hand held onto mine and made it nearly impossible to walk away. After entering the code and pushing open the door leading out of the Memory Care section, I turned back to wave in case I caught his eye. I hoped he was not wistfully watching me leave. Instead, I was just in time to see him retrieve a newspaper that a lady resident had dropped, and return it to her with a smile. In that gallant gesture I suddenly recognized the Dad I am losing. I managed to hold steady until I got out of the building. Escaping to the car, I sobbed for the end of my hero’s strength and for the grief that is marching ever closer.