What could I possibly miss about Alzheimer's? Sure, it would have been best -- would have been bliss -- had my dad's dementia never happened. But it did. Distressing as it was for everyone who knew and loved him to see him change, our good times didn't end. In fact, some of my most endearing memories of him came after he had "changed."
When we hear an Alzheimer's diagnosis, we tend to brace for the worst. Dementia, though, is a slow, erratic unwind, full of ups and downs. Personality, meanwhile, is a strong and persistent force. Everyone's dementia is different, but so much of my dad's good heartedness and good humor -- his essential goodness -- prevailed to the end of his life. It's reassuring, really, how much was left to enjoy, once I learned to relax and roll with his new reality.
This fatherless Father's Day, I find myself missing:
1. His cheerful flirtings with the GPS girl
By the time he was in his 80s, Dad had given up the wheel and was content to be driven around. He especially loved to drive with my sister because she had an early GPS system. It came pre-programmed for a home destination in Kansas, for some reason, though she lived in Ohio. My sister and her husband found themselves saying, "Dorothy you're not in Kansas anymore!" so often that the name stuck. She'd crank it up loud so Dad could hear it.
"In 1,000 feet, turn left onto Main Street," Dorothy would say in crisp syllables.
"How does she know that?!" Dad would marvel.
Then he'd lean close to the control panel as if she were right inside it. Enunciating as carefully, he'd reply: "Thank you, Dorothy, we will."
He turned her every instruction into a dialogue:
"Okay, Dorothy... You're right again, Dorothy... Whatever you say, Dorothy... You're a smart girl, Dorothy... Thank you, Dorothy, we made it!"
2. How his hips swung with the Swinging Seniors
Dad liked to keep busy. He'd think nothing of lifting your car hood to change your oil or maybe paint your back fence before lunch. Trouble was, he was increasingly unsteady and could get into trouble pretty quickly for a slow guy, so someone had to keep a constant eye on him. That's when we hired Mary Lou, a professional elder companion, to play cribbage with him and drive him around. He thought she was there to fold laundry and just happened to be going where he needed to go.
Once a week, Mary Lou drove Dad to a bowling alley, where he was the elder statesman of a team called the Swinging Seniors. (Dad bowled in a league as far back as I can remember. Here's a stanza from a bowling-themed Father's Day card I made him in third grade, which he saved for 50 years: After Dad's fans get a beer / They all start to cheer / "Yeah Pat! Yeah Pat! He's beating Wilmont like a mean ol' cat!)
His brain synapses may have been sputtering, but his "muscle memory" was amazing. Put a bowling ball in his hand, and suddenly this slow, wobbly figure -- watching him get out of the car took as much patience as watching a school recital -- could knock down pins with grace and style.
(He bowled a 189 a few months before he died.)
3. The stories I'd never heard before
Maybe because the distant past was more available to him than the recent past -- or maybe, too, because I spent more time just sitting with him, later in his life -- I learned more family history about my dad's boyhood once he had dementia.
A bonus: He'd tell each tale a thousand times, so now they're imprinted in my memory, too.
4. The little surprises
By the end, Dad knew nothing about the news. The day I told him that General Motors, his employer for his entire career, had filed for bankruptcy, he thought I was April-Fooling him. Nor could he follow a movie plot from start to finish. (Though whether this was the dementia or the fact that he spent most of the movie dozing off or running to the bathroom, is hard to say.) If you asked him about his passwords, he'd be thinking Allen Ludden.
On the other hand, he could still easily recite the entire Catholic Mass, his WWII military ID number, and all the words to the "Too Fat Polka," and "In Heaven There Is No Beer." I loved to hear him tell a grandchild the same silly limericks he'd once told me: "Humpty dumpty sat on a wall / Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. /All the king's horses and all the king's men / Ate scrambled eggs for breakfast again. "
5. His Dadisms (just the same as ever)
I learned not to focus on what Dad forgot, but what he remembered.
Dad forgot he had renal cancer on top of the dementia. But he remembered his habit of making light of bad things. "How are you feeling?" the doctor or a friend would ask. He'd always strike a muscle-man pose:
"Strong like bull!"
He forgot which year it was and who was President. But he always remembered to put on his watch, and if you needed to know the time, he was your man.
He forgot the dog's name. But he always remembered, when the little dachshund scrambled into his lap, how to find out. "Hello! Hello!" he'd coo, petting her. As he did, he'd slyly, casually work his fingers over to the little nametag on her collar. "Hello my little...." (long pause as he twisted the tag so he could read it) "Coco!"
My dad even sometimes forgot my name, by the end. But he always remembered I was someone who loved him.