As I write, my dad breathes steadily. He sleeps endlessly, about 22 hours each day. I sit by his side and tell him I love him and massage lotion into his hands because I can’t think of what else to do. He wakes up a little and looks at me with the blank eyes of Alzheimer’s. Does he know who I am? Somewhere in his head, I know his feelings about me float. They bubble to the surface and I get a smile. They sink to the depths and he looks at me with no recollection.
It has occurred to me that my father is no longer alive, but that is a painful thought. He’s still here, but the man he is now is not who he is…was. He loved chocolate chips in milk and B movies late at night. He is the man my mind still tells me to call when I have a financial question or a new business idea. This is the father who offered wonderful words of wisdom to me in moments of stress, the words I now share with my kids and still tell myself when I’m looking for a little comfort.
When I was a kid he sometimes recited a joke or two at the dinner table. I recall one was a long and meandering story about two polar bears. He called it a “Shaggy Dog” story. The story goes on and on in a long and nonsensical way and then finally the bears find themselves sitting on two ice floes that have separated. As they drift apart from one another, one bear calls out to the other: “Polar Bear!” I remember thinking, why is that funny? That is sad that the two bears are drifting apart and can no longer be together. I didn’t like Shaggy Dog stories.
So now here we are grappling with Alzheimer’s and like most families, the extent of how unfair it is is palpable. Do bad guys get Alzheimer’s or is it only the smart, loving and intelligent ones who fade away before our eyes. Even in the confused state he now drifts in and out of, my father has continued to be sweet and thoughtful of my mom’s feelings, even though she is mostly a stranger to him.
Many friends who have already been down this road are sending me beautiful words of advice and tales of last words suddenly spoken. The advice I receive is the same each time: spend every day with your dad like it is the last, tell him that you love him and that it is ok to let go.
So I sit here and watch him breathe. We are close to the end now. I dread in equal measure the phone call that will tell me he has died, or the one that tells me that nothing has changed and he still lives, suspended in sleeping but not in living. I feel dread that even at my age of 50, my childhood ends when I am no longer someone’s child. We are arriving at the punch line. And I don’t get it. Alzheimer’s has caused my dad to drift away from me and I’m left with the icy awareness that he is gone. I miss him.