The other day I was talking to the nurse from my parents’ assisted living facility, and she asked me a question, with an eye toward “grading” my dad’s most recent cognitive test.
“Did he go to MIT?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Did he have a job designing Weapons of Mass Destruction?”
She asked me this question with great dubiousness, obviously expecting this was some sort of Chuck Barris-level delusion. I laughed.
“Yes,” I told her. “I suppose he did.”
When I was a kid, my dad, like a lot of dads in our town, was working for the missile systems division of a large defense department contractor. I’ve no idea how much of a hand he would have had in actual weapons design; I don’t think they designed anything that officially fit the WMD designation. I do know that my dad would have chosen that phrasing deliberately to shock, with a nod and a wink to the rest of us, and enjoyed the discomfiture of this nice woman who’s been taking care of him for the last few years.
Had my dad not been in the late stages of dementia, this conversation with the nurse would have been quick, sharp, a little flirty. My dad was always an unapologetic flirt. That he would have this conversation with this nurse now, as ill as he is, is both heartening and devastating, and I’ll tell you right now I have no idea how to process it.
Fathers are difficult. They’re difficult for all of us, I think. Mothers, however defined in a specific family, have a clear and expected role. Mothers can also be difficult, but we acknowledge, culturally, their outsized place in our psychological development. They get credit for a great deal. They get blamed for a great deal. Fathers tend to be judged for their presence or absence–design a happy family without one, and you’ll find yourself vilified by a few specific segments of our society–but what the culture views as an indispensable familial contribution is vague, subculture dependent, and almost always rooted in toxic patriarchal norms.
And when you look at a specific family, a specific child, all that nonsense becomes entirely irrelevant.
My dad and I are very much alike. This made things both easier and harder for me as a child. (“You’re just like your father,” my mom often complained, which was hard to hear once I recognized she didn’t really like him much.) How I thought about and reacted to the world was familiar to him, but his lack of self-knowledge spilled over into how he dealt with me. When we were enjoying something together, it was easy, comfortable, instinctive; when we diverged–often around chores when I was little; he was very bad at defining method, scope, and goals, which drove me nuts–he’d revert quickly to pedantic frustration, and eventually to anger. My father’s anger was huge, loud, threatening; it could appear seemingly out of nowhere, exaggerated and outsized, escaping this good-humored, enthusiastic man like an alien bursting from his chest.
He took us all to see “Alien.” He took me twice; I was not yet 15 when it came out, and when Harry Dean Stanton started saying “Here, kitty kitty,” I got up and left the theater to wait in the car. Afterward, I made my brother tell me who lived, who died, and when I’d need to close my eyes, and my dad brought me to see it again. I stayed all the way through that time, although I watched a lot of it through my fingers.
He took us to a lot of movies. Despite all the TV I watched I was somehow oblivious to most of the Big Releases that came out when I was a kid, but he found all of them, good and bad, and hauled us to the theater. “2001” (when it was re-released). “Star Wars.” “Logan’s Run” (oh, dear). “The Sting” and “California Split.” My mom and I went to see “Saturday Night Fever” without him; when we learned it was actually a good film, we brought him with us when we saw it again. Every time anyone swore he shrunk down in his seat and looked over at me. I don’t know if he liked the movie, but our house was full of disco music after that.
And oh, music. Both of my parents were music lovers, but what was played in the house was largely driven by my dad. When I was a kid it was The Carpenters. By the time I was in high school he was largely focused on classical music, but there was still a lot of rock and roll in our household. They favored The Beatles over The Rolling Stones, The Doors over Zep. My lifetime of love for electronic music was started when my dad picked up “Tubular Bells”–because it was the theme from “The Exorcist,” a movie he did not take us to see.
I could never fully warm to classical music in general, although there are some individual pieces I like. This was a disappointment to him, and he’s never stopped pushing the issue. It annoys me, as often as not, that he refuses to remember I don’t care for classical music. This isn’t a dementia issue; it’s been true since I was small, and we’ve had the same conversation over and over and over.
This is perhaps the biggest speed bump I hit with my dad: my need to be seen vs. his need to bond with me. They both hinge on something he can’t do, which is recognize that it’s all right for those close to him to be different people.
He’s a narcissist, although that doesn’t matter anymore. He’s the nicest narcissist you’ll ever meet. Despite his temper and his strange, black-and-white myopia about nearly everything, he’s fundamentally generous, enthusiastic in his interests, and optimistic about the roadblocks of life. His psychological boundaries might be a mess, but most of the time, that’s okay, because most of the time he’s waiting to make a joke, or turn a phrase just to see if you believe he’s serious or not. Most of the time he’s bouncing on his toes waiting to draw you into conversation about something he loves.
His health is bad right now. It’s not just the dementia anymore. The nurse was visiting him at a rehabilitation center, trying to figure out if he was stable enough to return to his home with my mother. That’s become my focus, my goal: figure out what we need to do to get him home. It’s all we can give him now. We can’t make him happy, we can’t make him well, but maybe we can return him to his familiar things, and his wife, and his cat. Change disorients him. Being hospitalized, being in rehab, has made his cognitive issues so much worse.
My dad was always a magical thinker. He was never any good at admitting when something was impossible. He was very good at handwaving away things like preparation or planning or even logic. He was blessed with a particular sort of luck–maybe white man’s luck. He had parents who were able to send him to a good school, even after he disappointed them by turning his back on the military. His family embraced his wife, even though his mother had already chosen the daughter of a family friend for him to fall in love with. (That woman became a fairly well-known journalist and has pivoted to mysticism late in her life, which would have driven him nuts.) He stumbled into a good job working for a defense contractor, where he stayed for more than 30 years. He was a spendthrift, especially when we were little, but his workplace liked him and he kept getting raises, even as my mother tried to organize our finances and carried all of the worry when things were thin. His wife stuck by him through quite a lot of shit that isn’t my story to tell at all.
When I cleaned out their home for sale a few years ago, I found the footprints of this disease that’s taking him. The other day, going over his medical records to try to make sense of what he’s dealing with now, I found notes from his GP saying there were cognitive concerns as far back as 2011. Here’s where his magical thinking began to fail him: he faked it. This isn’t uncommon with dementia sufferers, and he was extremely good at it. It was their financial records that gave him away, the tax return files going from neat, organized stacks of paper (which was something in itself, because “neat” is something my dad absolutely never was) to scattered documents and missing forms. A tremble appeared in his handwriting, which had always been enviably beautiful. Unopened mail started to accumulate. To the extent we noticed anything at all, we put it down to his usual mental clutter, and he let us, because the truth was not acceptable.
I expect it’s still not acceptable to him. To him, it’s the world that’s rearranging itself, not his mind. To him, we’re the ones changing.
We are, of course. Just not the way he thinks.
I’m planning to see him tomorrow. I won’t call him today. He won’t understand the holiday, and my attempts at celebration will just puzzle him. He’s unhappy where he is. He’s largely unstimulated. He doesn’t understand what’s happening, or why he can’t just get up and leave. Even if we can get him home with my mother–he’ll still be unhappy, and he still won’t understand.
If I had all the money in the world, I would take him to Paris. I would find a penthouse apartment with a clear view of the Eiffel Tower. I would make him comfortable in that room, make sure the bed, the couch, all the furniture was oriented so he could see the iconic skyline. I would have him tended, made comfortable, entertained every moment of every day, for as long as he needed.
This is a terrible country in which to grow old. Perhaps they all are.
I’m so sorry, Dad. I love you.