A Break in the Narrative
“Got time for a haircut?” my father asks as soon as soon as I walk through the door of my house. He is waiting for me, literally opening the door as I walk up the two front steps. He and my mom are there when I get home, having gotten my sons off of the school bus. I take a deep breath. “Sure,” I say, “let me grab the stuff.”
I pull one of the dining room chairs onto the tile of the kitchen floor, walk down the hall and grab the comb, scissors, and clippers. Sitting there in the middle of my kitchen, my eighty-two-year-old father looks old. He looks tired, and I am not sure it has been a good day. He no longer looks like the father of my childhood remembrance. I take his glasses from him and place them on the counter beside us. I wrap a towel around his thin shoulders; he folds his right hand over his twisted and atrophied left, and the world tilts. The patient way he waits for me to begin, the vulnerability of it, knocks me off center.
I grab pieces between my fingers and snip, the silver strands falling like snow around my feet. We talk about my sister’s new house, and he laments her being so far away. I remind him that she moved a few months ago and now lives only two hours away. He says no, insists it is at least four. “Remember dad,” I say softly, combing gently through the hair on the back of his head, “they moved a couple months ago.” He asks my mom, sitting by the window in the kitchen. “I thought you told me four hours,” he says to her, losing steam. “No honey,” she replies, her voice rich with the complexities such conversations evoke. She turns her gaze back out the window. I turn my attention back to my father; I try to concentrate on the haircut.
More and more his mind functions like a story missing some pages. We will be reading along nicely, and then there is a gap he can’t seem to fill. We can usually keep moving along, but I see in his eyes that he feels the break in the narrative; he knows some pages have been torn loose. This is all relatively new – my dad’s dementia, the small daily confusions. The injustice of it makes me angry. I watch him struggle to reconcile his thoughts and my fingers go white clutching the comb.
My father spent over two decades of his life as a Franciscan priest. He led mass, and took confession, and offered solace. He traveled through Brazil trying to help those less fortunate. Once he left the order to start a family, he spent years working tirelessly at a job he did not love because he wanted to provide for us. When he retired he volunteered at a soup kitchen and taught adults how to read. He deserves to keep his faculties until he passes. He deserves better than those jarring moments when he looks up, having lost his train of thought, feeling the sting of a mind that is betraying him.
Not long after this haircut, my mom leaves to visit a friend for a couple of days. She is hesitant to go; she does not like leaving my dad alone anymore. Living nearby, I assure her I can fill in. The day after she leaves, I wake early to a call from him. He sounds confused and agitated. He tells me he has diarrhea, and that it had been going on for days. He struggles to maintain his dignity. As I dress and head out to the local pharmacy it is not lost on me how similar this errand is to the one I have done so many times for my two little boys. I buy the medicine and grab some electrolyte drink, bananas, rice and apple sauce – our pediatrician’s menu for tummy troubles.
When I arrive my father is asleep in his bed. He looks like an older version of one of my boys - mouth open, hands curling the blankets up against his chin. I go out the kitchen and start cooking some of the rice and laying supplies out along the counter. After a while, my father comes out and begins pacing. He walks measured steps, slow and steady with the help of the walking stick I made for him. Spiraling around the edge of that stick in Sharpie marker are the names of all the places he and I have walked together, all the places he has taken me: The Tapajos River in Brazil, The Great Wall of China, the narrow alleys of Assisi, Russia's Neva River. Name after name spiraling round in a double-helix like the DNA we share. These days walks stay within much narrower bounds - the hallways of his house, my front walk.
After talking with him for a few minutes he seems visibly relieved, but cannot pull together many details. I ask what he has eaten that morning, and he can’t tell me. I ask how many doses of Imodium he has taken, and he can’t answer. He walks over to the counter to a series of lists my mom has left for him – phone numbers, what to eat when, tasks to accomplish. He struggles, and stares, and smiles apologetically. He keeps checking the lists to find the answers he can’t recall, but the answers are not there. The answers are somewhere in his mind like footprints lost in a blizzard. My heart breaks. My anger swells. It all seems so unfair.
After I piece my dad’s day together as best I can, I measure out a dose of the medicine and place it on the counter beside the food. He does not talk while I organize his food for the day, but watches with a quizzical look and then paces restlessly around the house.
Later, we sit together in his living room and the version of my dad I have known my whole life returns, perhaps freed from the haze of a sleepless night or the anxiety of being sick and alone. We talk about the cabin my wife and I are building, about my sister and her kids, about the little love notes my mom has left for him all over the house. Again and again he tells me what great sons I have. “That’s because they have great parents,” he must say a dozen times. “You are a good son,” he repeats any time there is a lull in the conversation. “You are a godsend,” he says to me when we hug goodbye.
A godsend. A blessing. While not a very religious person myself, I like the idea of a God who would send help in a time of need. I take solace that my flailing attempts to show this man I love him, to help him out when he needs it may be interpreted that way in his mind. It is right there, standing in my father’s doorway that I first see a kind of light in the darkness that is my dad’s developing dementia. Suddenly I see myself recast, no longer just a helpless and angry victim, but instead someone who can help my father navigate his fading landscape.
In my father’s mind, snow is falling. I don’t think it is going to stop. The landscape of his mind is losing its detail beneath a layer of white. At some point in the future, the familiar paths of his world are going to be hidden, more and more things in his world will be buried. I get angry when I forget where I put my keys. I get flustered when I can’t remember why I walked into a room. I can’t imagine what it must be like to feel all the certainties in your life slipping away.
Perhaps this is not some awful fate my family must struggle through. At least it is not only that. It is also a chance for closeness I wouldn’t ever experience if my fiercely independent father’s brain kept functioning properly. Having my father call me that Saturday morning, hearing the anxiety in his voice and being close enough to make the short trip to his house and help him offered me an opportunity. As his dementia progresses, as it inevitably will, I need to look at these moments as opportunities rather than burdens.
“Got time for a haircut?” my father asks as soon as I have walked through the door of my house. I take a deep breath and think about the comfort he gets from not having to go out to a barber. I think of the finite number of times there are left for me to give that comfort to him. I think of the finite number of days I will be able to return home and be met by my dad at the door, my two boys practicing their karate on his legs as he asks me about my day.
More and more those impromptu afternoon conversations revolve back to my dad’s anxieties and confusions, yet I know we are just at the beginning. More and more he asks me questions he has asked me days or even minutes ago. I take a deep breath and answer them. No matter how many times he asks, I just try to answer.
I pull one of the dining room chairs onto the tile of the kitchen floor and grab the comb, scissors, and clippers. Sitting there in the middle of my kitchen, my eighty-two year old father looks old, but he is smiling. I think it has been a good day. The windows are open and the heady smell of an early spring wafts through the window. I take his glasses and place them on the counter. I wrap a towel around his shoulders.
I smile and start cutting.