I suppose I must start out with a hat tip to honesty and confess that while the title to this piece is about how my father's dementia makes me laugh, I do have moments where I secretly want to cry about it. If he had a choice between drifting into dementia or avoiding that storm all together, I'd help him steer around it.
If you know someone who living through dementia or is living as a caregiver for someone with a loss of brain function then you know my secret, that it can make you angry and bitter at times.
But if a mind is a terrible thing to waste then dementia must be a terrible thing to waste as well. So I've been looking for some much-needed good news in the muddy dark slope into that altered mental state many face.
My father was never a glass-is-half-full kind of guy. He was more of this-glass-has-a chip-it's-dirty-and-nobody-will-ever-drink-out-of-this-glass kind of guy. His life did not make him well-suited to face whatever changes his brain is going through.
Now Dad's life might seem a bit odd to many now that he is living La Vida Dementia but a lot of people are quirky to some degree.
What kind of life can you live that prepares you to have your memory, thinking, language, and behavior, altered? The answer must be, none.
Sometimes my dad will ask me the same question five times in an afternoon. At first it really got under my skin like nails on a blackboard. But soon I figured out if I could rework my approach to this, it could be a blessing. Instead of being terribly annoyed by the repetitive question I now look forward to it because it makes me look like the smartest guy on the planet to him the second through fifth time he asks me. It's a lot like that movie Groundhog Day.
"How many cruise ships do you think there are in the world," he will ask.
While my first answer is "I don't know," the reality is I could probably just make up any number and he'd be okay with it. Instead I turn to that all-powerful and omnipotent resource, Google, and come up an answer that is based in fact. And then I wait for him to ask me again.
To my father, I'm so smart. What he doesn't realize is he just sets me up to be that way the next four times he'll ask.
Dad's dementia has impacted his ability to speak and recall the right word. On more than one occasion he's had me over to examine his television for some problem. He will get exasperated and point at the computer and want to know why I'm not working on it. That's where the problem is he'll tell me. Television equals computer and sometimes television.
His inability to recall the right words leaves me filling in a lot of his sentences quietly in the background. At times I get that Nancy Reagan vibe as she filled in words for her husband, then President Reagan, at a press conference.
I usually can master all the usual blanks like pizza, chicken, hot, winter, and baseball. But every once in a while my father totally stumps me and even I have to turn to him with the I don't have a clue face.
Filling in the blanks for him is a lot like playing Mad Libs as a kid where someone would fill in the missing words with something crazy.
It usually goes something like:
He'll start, "Last night I had..."
I'll whisper "chicken."
And speaking of chicken. My dad is now 83 years old and has lived a full life of around-the-world travels. He's eaten so many types of food and so many wonderful meals and had loads of foods he liked. Apparently his dementia has struck the food center of his brain and he's convinced the only thing he likes to eat now is baked chicken.
He's currently living in a local assisted living facility where they serve incredible three-course meals but he believes all they serve is chicken. And I admit I did get sucked into that issue.
I went to the director of the facility and wanted to know why my father said all they feed him is chicken.
"He refuses our chef's schedule of meals and requests chicken as the alternative selection at almost every meal," he said.
"Got it," I said as I quietly withdrew from his office.
Don't let me fool you into thinking there is anything wonderful about dementia or caring for someone with dementia. I've yet to find it. But if my father was the kind of guy who could focus on the good things in life, maybe my opinion might be different right now. For him everything is broken, he's bitter, and frustrated.
My father has become my man-child and the parent who raised me to be a good person, threw the football, was my baseball coach, and an amazing well-accomplished person, well that guy is vanishing.
If I was to try to throw the baseball with my dad now I'd probably accidentally kill him because he'd try to catch the ball with his face instead of the baseball glove on his hand.
"Oh that's what that's for," he'd say as he blotted the blood away from his nose.
The toughest transition for him followed the death of my mother from ovarian cancer in 2012. Not only was he struggling with that immense loss but his driving got so bad that it was impossible to allow him to drive. Someone was going to get hurt for sure. Who, I wasn't sure.
Dad and I came to an agreement that we'd hire a veteran ex-state trooper to give him an independent driving exam and we'd live with whatever the results would be. The reality is if the examiner passed him I would have probably have tossed myself off a cliff or started telling people just to drive without a license because there are no standards.
The day came for the test and the examiner got into the car with Dad and away they went. The test was to last 45 minutes. They returned in just 20.
As the seasoned retired state trooper, who had surely seen it all, backed out of the car he just looked at me with a frazzled face and said, "Ah... ah... that man can't drive." The examiner had that I've just seen a ghost look in his eyes. I knew the look from the mirror after riding with my father myself.
Dad felt emasculated when I asked for his keys. We both cried and he was angry at me over it. Really angry.
He said, "I don't know why I can't drive. I haven't killed anybody yet."
That kind of logic is hard to rationalize with when the driver can no longer grasp the "yet" part of that belief.
Dad says he was nervous and that's why he failed the test. I can believe that part but when the written test results arrived they seemed to paint a different picture.
"The test subject stopped in the right hand lane of southbound Capital Boulevard to make a right turn instead of merging into right hand turn lane to make a legal turn."
"The test subject was going 75 MPH in a 55 MPH zone with the examiner present because he said other cars were going that speed."
But my favorite part of the results have to be, "As we proceeded to the front of the medical facility the test subject went the wrong way down the road forcing at least one pedestrian to jump out of the way."
Hey, if you are going to fail at something you might as well do it in style. I'm glad the pedestrian was not hurt but that line still makes me laugh.
My father will continue to slip into the terminal grasp of dementia. He will continue to borrow my razor when we go on trips and lose it in less than ten minutes. I still don't know how he does that.
He will continue to have a bromance with chicken.
And he will continue to say to someone, "We went to that place that is really too big and has everything. You know..."
And I'll continue to whisper, "Walmart."