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Neither Dementia nor Coronavirus can Rob Me of My Father’s Legacy

I can't control the ravages of either disease, but I can honor the exemplary life my father lead and the people he touched.

Because of COVID-19, it's likely that last year was the last Father's Day I will have gotten to spend with my father.
Because of COVID-19, it's likely that last year was the last Father's Day I will have gotten to spend with my father.

This Father’s Day, there will be no hugs.  I am painfully aware that it may be the last one for my ailing 84-year old father, whom I will only be able to see by camera.  

Like so many around the world, COVID-19 has built a wall between my aging parents and me, both of whom reside in an assisted living facility that I haven’t been allowed to enter since March 16.  But, instead of railing about the injustice of not being able to be with my father this year, I chose to honor his memory, as the dedicated professor and father he was.

My dad was a feeble kid, the third of five siblings, who grew up in southern Japan in a shabby shelter that had no electricity or running water.  The misfit in the family, he enjoyed school.  His father, a tile maker, expected him to follow in his footsteps as soon as he was able. “I was viewed as an indispensable labor asset for his business,” wrote Dad in his memoirs.  Rather than obey my grandfather however, my father resisted, straining their relationship in the process. With the support of my father’s teachers and his doting mother, however, he ultimately made his way to Boston to obtain his doctorate.  

The bulk of my dad’s career was spent as a scholar of cultural anthropology.  His academic foci included Burakumin, a marginalized, ethnic minority—Japan’s untouchables—, Latino migrant farmworkers and classroom teachers.  Among his students and colleagues, Dad had a reputation for being a meticulous researcher and compassionate teacher.  He believed that education was an equalizing force that gave opportunities to those who might not otherwise have them.  He made sure to instill this value in his children—my younger brother and me.  

My memories growing up in New Jersey include house dinner parties with graduate students and professors, and the crackly sound of the AM radio throughout the summer, broadcasting games of the Yankees, whom he simultaneously loved and hated.  He constantly nagged me about homework and studying. I despised it then.  But now, I regret that I didn’t listen to him more.  

The camera I installed in his apartment often shows him with eyes closed, covered in blankets on his lounge chair, his snowy hair now touching his collar.  Only a year ago he would have found a way to trim his hair even during a lockdown, as being well-groomed was important to him. The wrinkles along his eyes, like sideways “W’s,” give away how often he smiled, even when his face is at rest.   

Three years ago, my brother and I moved him and my mother into the assisted living facility, concerned it was no longer safe for them to live on their own. Overall, my parents are probably safer now.  They cannot accidentally set fire to their place or give themselves too much medication. But the trade-off has been a loss of identity and dignity.   

To many of the staff at the facility, they are known as “604,” their apartment number, rather than their names (“604 has a dentist’s appointment today”).  It is a cynical reflection of how the facility views its residents, as numbers soon to expire, rather than people.  Many staffers, overworked, underpaid and unhappy, do not smile. Some snap when asked questions.  My father, who needs help with self-care, is often handled like a package rather than a frail man who responds with trust to a tender touch.

In countless communications with the facility, I have asked that my parents be spoken to with civility and that the aides be gentle.  I co-founded a family council and sit on the board of directors arduously trying to foster a climate of respect and humanity at the facility.  

If my father is to leave a legacy at this place, I hope it will be from my efforts to instill in its staff the core principle that the residents need to be treated with kindness.

Most of my conversations with my dad these days are about the weather—they are hardly the analytical, critical, discussions he so relished in the past.  But mercifully, he is often in good spirits, does not appear to be in discomfort, and never complains.  

I hope that his dementia allows him to forget how the aides bark at him and startle him by  showering him with cold water, failing to check the temperature first.  Ditto for how they recklessly yank up his pants when dressing him. Nonetheless, I remain aggrieved that he cannot defend himself.  If he were aware, and in my shoes, I know he would be as enraged as I.  

As a disciple of the values he taught, I yearn for his understanding that I am trying to make things right. He is not just a number.

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