Things Fall Apart

When I was a kid, my dad took us camping every year at a lake.

It was tent camping, always, although we had a gas stove—and later, when the site became a state park, picnic tables and outhouses and blazed hiking trails. When I was older, I’d get up early with my dad, and we’d go swimming while my mom and my brother slept in. Because I’d come from a cozy sleeping bag, the water was always brutally cold, but I’d dive in anyway. It felt lovely afterward, feeling clean and damp and chilly, huddling around the gas stove while my dad made breakfast.

He never complained about the cold, never hesitated to get in the water. I never thought about that at the time. I don’t know if he said nothing because he felt he shouldn’t, that it would corrupt his image as patriarch, or if the lake was simply his natural state, his own childhood and his new children and all of his memories enveloping him every time he put his head under the water.

He gets his memories tangled now. He was telling the realtor about the fireplace in their condo—a working fireplace, but they never used it. He told her they’d had several fires in it, but they were all coal, because as she knew they burned coal back then. They bought the condo in 1982. He was remembering coal fires from his childhood.

He remembers places we’ve been, but not what we did there, not where they are, not how old I was. This piecemeal view of the world is closing in on him: he remembers that a DVD must somehow spin with the help of the player, but he doesn’t understand that he must put the disk inside the player, doesn’t even remember that the player opens at all. To him, it’s the world that’s breaking; but it’s his memory, intact as individual pieces but scattering in all directions, leaving him chasing after scraps.

He’s still very much himself through all of this. None of the dementia has touched his personality, although he’s more often frustrated, which I understand: this was a man who excelled at working out solutions to problems (even if those solutions were so often off-the-wall). The frustration is a symptom of dementia, too, but I’m not sure that’s why it’s happening to him. He’s always been about appearances. He’s always been the guy who can’t let his teenaged daughter know that he thinks the water is cold.

Analysis deserts me now and then, usually in the early morning hours. The unfairness of it all washes over me, and I give in to being overwhelmed, just for a little while. I grieve and rail at the universe and recognize my own helplessness.

This disease doesn’t get better. This disease is terminal. There is one destination here, and all I can do is try to give them life and comfort as they travel the path.

I don’t talk about my mother as much. She’s earlier on in the journey, and it’s happening to her differently. She’s far less needy than he is, and much of helping her is relieving her of the burden of helping him. And it’s…stranger, talking about my mother. Harder. I’ve always depended on her in ways I never depended on him, reflexively shared my life with her without thinking about it much. Analyzing my dad is another way of avoiding thinking about my mother’s disease, about the likelihood she doesn’t retain anything I tell her anymore. My father chases after scraps; she doesn’t even know what she’s lost.

Is it merciful for her? For him? I want to believe it is. But I’ve always been blindsided by the cruelty of the world, by this arc that I’m told bends toward justice but never actually seems to get there. Is it really a wonder that humans are cruel, given where we’re all headed? Is it a wonder we spend so much energy fighting the fundamental truth that nothing we touch, nothing ever, is lasting?

I was an adult before my mother confessed to me that she’d never liked those camping trips. She didn’t like swimming, she didn’t like roughing it, and almost certainly when my brother and I were little she was 100% responsible for looking after us while my dad led us on day-long hikes and dove into the cool lake in the afternoons. 

I was sorry to learn that. I always found peace on those trips, and a little bit of melancholy. I didn’t much care for the day-long hikes, but I loved swimming, and I’d have time to read, hours and hours, sometimes two or three books a day. I’d write, too, although often just in my head, as I walked along the rocky shore, this alien landscape with no TV and no telephone. I wasn’t always happy on the island, but I was always very much myself.

When dementia comes for me—if it comes—maybe my memories of the island will be the scrap I retain. Maybe that’s where I’ll reside when the rest of the world falls to pieces around me. Maybe I’ll be left with myself, if nothing else. It’s more mercy than I deserve, but I can hope.

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