This is my dad, Joseph Richard Schmitt. He is ninety. We celebrated his birthday last Saturday and got the family together. He is standing with his great grandkids Joey, Chris and Zachary, who are the sons of his granddaughter Jenni who is the daughter of his second son, Geoff. I am pretty sure that at the moment this picture was taken, my dad might not have known why he was standing there. I think he knew these are his great grandkids, but I'm pretty sure that he would not know their names, or be able to tell them one from another.
My dad has dementia. Not the kind that makes you crazy, running down the street with a butcher knife and not the kind that makes you wonder what a key is for, or forget how to turn the knob on a door.
My dad has dementia of a gentler kind, the kind that takes away your past and in so doing, blurs the clarity of your present. My dad can dress himself, cut with a knife, brush his teeth, and use the restroom. But he can't remember what year it is, or what day, or why all these people have come out today. A few minutes after this picture was taken, he put his hand to his forehead and remarked, "I THOUGHT I felt something on my head!"
My dad does not remember that he had a younger brother, who died two years ago. He doesn't remember that he proposed to my mother by tossing the box with the ring in it towards her and saying, "So do you want it or not?" He does not remember that it was when he was five years old that he found his father's keg of homemade elderberry wine in the cellar and drank so much of it, he fell asleep for two whole days. He has forgotten how he ran into a phone pole while playing touch football in the street and that is why he has that scar. He doesn't remember how he sauntered so confidently down the street in his white Chief Petty Officers uniform after returning from Guadalcanal and walked right up the steps to my mother's house, and how she took his ring off her right hand and put it on her left and said, "You're stuck with me now." He has forgotten that his nickname with his high school buddies was "Diaper Dukie Dick."
He says the same things over and over a lot now. He puts his hand in his pocket and says, "I don't have the keys," even though he handed them to you to drive not two minutes ago. He'll do it at least five more times while you drive him to the doctor's office, and five more as you drive him back home. He walks behind my mom now as they go down the hall to their room, or down the aisle of the grocery, buying milk. He does this quite unconsciously but for a very good reason - he knows that, while he does not know how to get home, she does. He carefully arranges his fork and spoon beside his plate at exact right angles, over and over again. Sometimes he gets up in the middle of a gathering and walks into the darkened living room or bedroom, so he can sit quietly and stare into space for awhile.
He is often not quite here. But on the other hand, he is here more than most of us.
He is in the moment, even if he doesn't know what or why the moment is. He is standing here with a big smile amid these small boys, because its a good thing to do. They are smiling, wearing funny hats, therefore the day is a good one and all is well.
I am grateful for his ease with his condition. I am glad that he is unaware of how much he is unaware. In the mists of lost memory, he still has the ability to really enjoy a chocolate bar, or the smile of his wife, or kids with shiny pointy hats. He takes what is and makes it work. He lives in the moment of now, which is really the only place a truly wise person lives anyway. It is all we have, when you really think about it long enough. Memories are keepsakes to pore over and enjoy, but the reality of the next breath is in the now. So he leaves what he can't remember to other minds to keep on his behalf. We will remember the uniform, all white in the sun. We will remember the arc of the ring in its box, landing in mom's soft lap. We will remember the nickname and laugh.
We will hold the memories, and he will make more of them, which he will forget. Long live Diaper Dukie Dick. Long live the king.