By the spring of 2002, we could never leave my father alone. He was dependent upon us for everything. Not too far from his 52nd birthday, when the weather felt the same warmth that day at the zoo and soft breezes whispered along the sweet singing of the birds outside our home, I had fallen asleep beside my father.
I was supposed to be looking after him that afternoon as he sat in his recliner watching the stock market channel, staring at the numbers, forgetting each and every sign and symbol. I remember trying to keep my heavy lids from falling but finally giving in to the comfort of a woven cotton blanket and a familiar warm pillow.
When I awoke, perhaps an hour or so later, the recliner by my side was empty. The television was still on; the remote control sat at the base of the chair and the recliner was still extended. I knew he had struggled to get up, having forgotten how to pull the wooden bar on the left side of the chair down. It was always easy to identify the remnants of him -- the Parmesan cheese hidden in drawers, cereal spread across the table, pools of urine on the bathroom floor. But those were the times when he’d be roaming the house on his own, like a toddler with no mother.
I got up quickly, knowing he was gone, and I heard my mother screaming from upstairs, screaming that she couldn’t find my father. But the front doors were closed; his tracks were covered for the most part, and I couldn’t tell which direction he had taken. It was my first moment of real panic -- the first time I felt completely helpless and powerless. The fact that I hadn’t watched him, that he had escaped the safety of that living room while I slept beside him, shook me.
That evening I lost my father, I pulled open the door of my mother’s car and got in. My mother’s radio was on loud, and Italian music splintered my ears -- I remembered cursing at her in anger as I shut it off. I pulled out of the driveway and down the street, towards that stop sign at the intersection of Cedarmill and Summer Ridge Road. There, I went with my father a week or so before during a walk we took together. My mother had told me to take him out, and I remember complaining -- but quickly trying to cover up my disdain when I saw my father grow excited. We mainly walked in silence as I tried to keep our spirits high by walking on the grass, jumping up on the curb and holding his hand in mine. I led him to that intersection and then we turned left, where I was then driving. We kept going straight, right into the neighborhood across the street, where my best friend Dan lived on Easy Ridge Court. I took my father to the pond Dan and I would go to on summer days and nights when we’d smoke and drink from little miniature liquor bottles I would steal from my parents’ liquor cabinet.
When my mother had caught me that night drinking alone in my room, she had poured out all the liquor and all the wine she had and threw the empty bottles in a cardboard box. She had screamed at me that I had drunk all the small liquors she and my dad had collected over the years, and I felt guilty not for the drinking, but for taking away souvenirs of their past.
The next morning, I went into the laundry room to get clothes out of the dryer and I saw the box sitting squarely in the middle of the floor. My father followed me into the laundry room and looked at me, shaking his head slightly. His eyes were large and round in that moment, and I heard him clear his voice.
“Please,” he managed to utter softly, “Please.” That’s all the punishment I received from him -- all the words of anger, of sadness -- in the pleading from my wordless father.
I drove and drove and it seemed like I had driven much too far for my demented father to have traveled in such a short time. Sweat poured from my face and from under my arms. I smelled of hot, sickening discomfort, and then I saw him.
He was stumbling, grumbling -- hunched over, his arms at his side. He seemed to be walking unnaturally stiff and bent forwards. I rolled down the window, swerved a bit and yelled to him. I beeped at him to startle him, to slow him down. But he kept walking. “Daddy!” I yelled, “Stop! What’s the matter with you?!” I pulled into a driveway to cut his path on the sidewalk and his eyes were furrowed and dark and he shook his head as cars whizzed by us. “Get in the car, dad. Come on,” I told him, and he shook his head. “Vattene! Naggia dio, lasciami!” he screamed at me, telling me to go, and I stood still, surprised at the fluidity in his speech. I remembered being blown away at his heated anger and hearing his voice he hid away for so many years since he’d been sick. My father did seem to hold onto Italian curse words the longest -- they seemed to be his shell when all else failed.
“Please daddy, please, let’s go home.”
After I finally talked him into getting back inside the car, I locked the doors. I remained silent like him as we turned to drive down Baxter once more. The next day, my mother told me to pick up childproof doorknob covers at Wal-Mart. Since I worked there, I could get a discount and I felt useful, in a way, to be able to save her a bit of money.
I stood nervously in the infant department with a red basket hanging from my limp, shaking arm. There were so many different types of cupboard locks, fancy medicine bottle lids, and two different kinds of doorknob covers.
I stood still, biting the inside of my bottom lip, picking my fingernails bare. Finally, I grabbed one of the doorknob covers I thought looked secure. Should I get two? Four? I pictured all of the doors in our house -- the door to the garage -- that would be important. The front door -- of course. The back door -- what if he found a way to open the basement door and get confused by the stairs? I bought enough for every door in the house. After loading my basket, I walked silently towards the cashiers.
This post is excerpted from the new book "Beside The Mountain: Finding Strength and Courage Through My Father’s Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease" by Stefania Silvestri, who became a caregiver at age 14 along with her mother and two sisters. In the book she describes the six-year battle that ended with her father's death at age 54, and her own struggle to come to terms with it as a teenager.