This is a picture of my dad on a good day. He's going to be 95 this year. He has dementia. He's had it now for more than 12 years. He doesn't know who I am, or what year it is, or where he lives. He has forgotten that he was married, although sometimes he still asks, "Where's Mom?" and we're not quite sure if he's asking for his wife or his mother, or my sister in law who cared for him daily this past year. Probably all three of them, mixed together into one satisfying representation of love, comfort, clean laundry, acceptance and possibly, cookies.
There's a lot that my dad has lost. There's a lot we have lost, too. While not always the blazing fire of determination and zest (well, actually to my recollection, never the blazing fire of determination and zest) his personality did have its fair share of self-will, desires, stubbornness. He could argue his point of view, cheer at the ball game, talk back to the TV. He could insist that creamed peas on toast was the food of the gods, despite every evidence to the contrary. He could take pride in being able to change the oil, find the best price on eggs, pack the car trunk like a Tetris game, using every possible square inch of space to the max.
My father could express righteous anger when he suspected one or more of his sons of driving their car too fast, trying a beer while underage, wearing their hair too long or wanting a leather jacket like a hoodlum. He could ask my mom if she wanted a sandwich and then, when she said yes, ask her to make him one too - and get her not only to make the sandwich, but to laugh while doing it. He could eat unlimited fried oysters. He could keep his kids convinced for years that, yes, Santa really did bring the tree and the presents all at once on Christmas eve.
Yep, there's a lot of my dad that is gone now, only in our memory. I stopped thinking of him as Dad years ago, substituting the term "Poppie" in order to ease the pain of loss. Now I can refer to him as my dad to others, but to his face, I call him Cutie, Funny-face, Ol'Man, Handsome. Often, I think of him as Methuselah, a thousand years old.
But having visited him yesterday in his adult family home, I found that Methuselah still has something over on me.
He listens to music. Craves it. Lots of music, full of melody and sweet lyrics and mellow tones. Perry Como, Bing Crosby. Good stuff. When you take him for a ride in the car, he looks out the window without boredom or impatience, even if he can hardly see. He eats when he is hungry and chooses not to eat when he is not. He always asks for cookies, but doesn't get angry if he has to wait for them. He takes no shame in a public burp or fart, or even when he loses control and has an accident.
He doesn't talk about stuff he knows nothing about. He doesn't talk much at all, and has no need to fill up silences. He doesn't bring up old hurts or insults. He sticks to the facts; the Lone Ranger's horse was named Silver; Ken Maynard always wore a black hat; his birthday is in April; it's sunny outside. He judges no one. He responds heartily and happily to hugs, kisses, laughter. He has no interest in keeping secrets. If you ask him, "You know what?" he will always say, "What?" If you tickle him, he will smile and let you do it even if others are watching. He likes naps.
Little kids, great-grandchildren, know he won't be irritated if they take up too much space on the couch next to him, or if they accidentally kick his leg with their little feet. He never is too busy to listen to what they have to say, and doesn't seem to mind if what they say makes no sense to him.
He's not going to comment on your financial status, or whether or not your job is worthwhile, or if you should be married or single or dating. He doesn't care what you're wearing.
If he can't think of the answer to something, he'll say he doesn't know. Worry about his lack of knowledge does not keep him up at night.
Long ago, he wasn't good with exchanging words of affection. But now, if you say, "I love you," his response is immediate and true. "I love you too."
He runs the risk of being demanding in his many, many needs, but on the other hand you do know what he wants - that is, if he himself knows. Sometimes he forgets or can't find the right words, but there is never subterfuge here, no guessing games. You know what he knows. He is completely vulnerable and transparent. He does not worry about asking for what he needs, over and over again. In that, he is fearless.
And perhaps most gratefully for all of us, there is not any apparent fear of anything else, either. No anger in confusion, no fighting or resentment or distrust. He doesn't see threats in faces he doesn't recognize. He's not fleeing his life in search of something someone once told him would be better.
Now I am not about to say that his dementia is good, or a gift, or even a blessing. It's not merciful. It's still terribly hard and sad and inevitable in its ending. It's taking him away from us, a piece at a time. It's not something I would wish on my worst enemy, much less my father.
But I can't help but notice the byproducts as they reveal themselves, and take the lessons to heart. They say that in many cases, dementia changes the personality of the sufferer, and turns them into someone else entirely. But in my father's case, it seems to have mostly removed the fearfulness and hesitancy that once plagued him, replacing it with peacefulness and raw honesty.
I know so much more now than my dad does today. I can navigate the world. And yet, his current newfound knowledge of how to simply be a human being is still very much something I am working on. Something I aspire to. To be able to navigate the heart.
Dementia is a ferocious, raging beast with teeth and horns and an eternal appetite; still my father has learned to live with it in a way that still leaves intact the best of whom he has ever been. I'm taking notes. There is a lot to learn.
Sometimes, I do believe Methuselah does indeed know best.