Each time I visit my beloved father who has dementia and lives abroad, there are more changes than I can ever hope to keep up with.
There are the blank looks, the repetition of questions, none requiring an answer or even a clarification; they are simply closed questions within a confusing dialogue that is regurgitating in his mind.
Moments turn into hours, but he stays oblivious to the pass of time; occasionally his fathering instinct comes to the surface through his protective nature.
I notice a difference this time I visit; and although it might sound insignificant, it’s actually major.
As he wakes up in the morning and he sees me, he doesn’t look surprised to see me there, he remembers I slept there the night before. This is major in it’s significant and brings me joy. Perhaps I’m not a momentary vision but someone more permanent in his mind.
Doubt creeps into my mind. But for how many days will he remember this and how long will it last? and true to this, not even three days later he shows the surprised look on his face that I was dreading, as he sees me walk in for breakfast in the morning.
In the afternoon, I sit alongside him attempting a mental exercise where he has to match a square object with the shaped hole that it corresponds to. He attempts this exercise slowly, methodically whilst he momentarily looks towards me for approval that he is heading the right direction and matching the shapes in the right order.
I nod my head and give him a sound of encouragement, and he takes that as the green light giving him permission to continue and complete his shapes board.
Every part of this excersize is heartbreaking to watch.
The father who taught me how to swim, ride my first bike, write my first cheque and complete my taxes, now has to be reminded of the shapes and colours that stand on the table before him. His face blank as he stares at them.
Dementia has taken my father and I want him back. As if he had been a hostage withdrawn in the midst of negotiations.
I wonder, how much do I need to pay in ransom to have him returned?
Is it possible that our conversations, discussions about my work and advice given so readily no longer be there?
He was the first person I told I was engaged, I shared my pregnancies with him before I had blurted it to anyone else, and when one day we sat and he asked me what was wrong, I finally had the courage to tell him that I was getting divorced.
Never did the words ‘I told you so’ pass his lips, whilst I continued to enter relationships and situations that were not necessarily the best.
When I had (what seemed like) a nervous breakdown a number of years ago, and turned up at my parents home with my children to nestle in the safe arms of my parents, he welcomed me alongside my mother with open arms. No judgement, no questions, just love.
He would wake me up each morning, standing by my bed holding a breakfast tray with a solitary bowl of warm porridge. ‘Eat this, you’ll need all the strength you need right now,’ he would say.
Whilst I was devoid of energy or joie de vivre, he would spoon each morsel of porridge into my mouth as if I was toddler. His love pulled me through those moments, and slowly but surely I began to piece my life together, rebuild with the powerful love of my parents alongside me whilst I attempted to place each piece of the jigsaw in it’s place.
I remembered this whilst I take a spoon of vegetable soup to feed him; lovingly wanting to transfer the same care that he gave me all those years ago. Surely it would transfer by osmosis, after all, we’re related.
Dementia has taken parts of him, but his essence is ever present. Even more beautiful as it is unedited, pure, unleashed; no energy is put into trying to impress others or coming across a certain way. What you see is totally what you get, and there is something so beautiful about this.
At times when people come to visit him, I feel embarrassed by his questions as he lacks awareness of what he says. Then I have to pull myself back and remember that it doesn’t matter; nothing really matters anymore.
Let my father speak his truth as he sees it, and if people visiting feel uncomfortable, then let them deal with it, no need for me to worry or concern myself.
Soon my visit with him will end, living abroad complicates things substantially. My fear is that when I return next month, he might not remember me, might have forgotten a detail about me. My visit this time would have evaporated from his memory like the morning dew.
I remember that one of the most exciting things when I wrote my first book, was to finally share it with my parents. Each time I see him and I show him my book; he holds the book in his hands and asks the same question. Why is my picture on the cover? and I have to explain again that I wrote the book.
His face beams, surprised and excited ‘You wrote this? I always said you would go far’ he repeats each time. Not remembering that a short moment ago, he had exclaimed the same. Hearing it again and again with the excitement that accompanies it, is incredible.
Imagine if we had the same sense of astonishment and surprise each time we see something we have seen before.
I walk into his room each day with no other thought but ‘How can I best show up for my dad today? How can I show this glorious man, who was my friend, protector and dad, how much I love him?’
I surrender to what is, rather than fighting what isn’t. Accepting that this will now be the new normal, however abnormal it looks.
If someone would have told me a few years ago that the person who was my ultimate hero would deteriorate and barely recognise me at times, I would have not believed that I could deal with what has unfolded.
But this is what life does, it gives us a situation we believe we cannot ever manage and as it worsens we begin to get used to the new normal, we naturally expand in coping mechanisms. We face up to situations that previously would have felt impossible and live through it, something within us shifts to allow for this.
That is resilience. It’s natural, organic and is all happening within.
We don’t even know how strong we can become unless we push up against the painful elements of life. Not avoid it but face it head on; knowing that we have everything we need to navigate any difficulties. We have seen it in emergency situations where people end up doing things they could never have imagined possible.
We were built to be resilient, to take hard knocks at times and then be all the stronger for it. We were not built to be housed in a protective environment, not allowing difficulties, pain or challenges.
Currently, my biggest challenge is leaving him and saying goodbye. As I do so, and the plane begins each movement to get off the ground. I realise that the airline is taking me further away from him; the distance ever wider, the gulf ever deeper – I look out of the small window knowing full well that by the time the plane has ascended into the sky, my father would have long forgotten I had visited him in the first place.
But I continue to return regularly as his symptoms increase with intensity, and the dialogue between us becomes more convoluted.
Yet I find comfort in those split-second moments when there is laughter or a burst of song. When there is a recognition of sorts.
When I wrote my first dementia article ‘How my fathers dementia taught me about savouring the moment’, I received such an incredible response, I realised that I was writing as a way of giving voice to what I was feeling, and also for others who are navigating the same issue, so that they feel they are not alone.
If this article resonated with you, check out Michele’s book Look Inside: Stop Seeking Start Living’ available now on Amazon.