48: Finding Dad

48: Finding Dad

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Finding Dad

Don’t wait to make your son a great man — make him a great boy.

~Author Unknown

I was twelve and Dad had been sick for a few years. Now he looked old, more bent over. His face was lined and his black hair was slowly starting to gray, but it was mostly his eyes; those big friendly deep brown eyes were so sad-looking, without the sparkle they used to have.

And when he went for a walk he had trouble remembering how to get home.

Sometimes Mom would call us in from playing to go look for him and bring him back. My younger brother Bruce and I would split up and walk through the neighborhood trying to act as if we weren’t really out tracking our father.

One particular time stands out. It was a chilly autumn day, and I had my jacket zipped up against the cold. I shuffled along the sidewalk, vaguely avoiding each concrete crack. The idea that they were expansion joints there to save the walkway didn’t lessen their mystic significance from those “break your mother’s back” rhymes. I was wary of the possibilities — my life was damaged enough already.

With luck, Dad wouldn’t be too far and I could get back to my games or continue building forts before the weekend ran out. I trailed along our street, heading in the direction I thought I would most likely find him. I always sent Bruce the other way; maybe then he wouldn’t have to deal with Dad. He was only seven, but he knew not to go too far and compound the problem of people being lost.

Our life had two realities: before Dad got sick, and after.

Before, life felt positive, Mom was happy; things were generally good. Afterward, sadness pervaded, even in the good times. Dad was slowly getting worse, a constant reminder of how bad it was — for him, for us, and for the future.

In a lot of ways, we took it in stride. I learned not to feel overwhelmed by responsibilities I couldn’t handle; my brother learned to stay empowered by feeling angry at life’s unfairness.

As the older brother I was lucky enough to have quite a few fuzzy but good memories of Dad. I knew he loved us enough to have built us a sandbox, then built a sunroof over it and decorated it with pictures of horses and Native Americans — the first time I figured out my father could draw that well. He taught me the rudiments of perspective with a dot trick for drawing cubes, and how to play “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” on the harmonica. My brother, five years younger, couldn’t remember much of the time before the disease.

On this particular Saturday search there was no one out on our street, and I found him in ten minutes, striding along in his slippers and sweater. Luckily, he was still short of the busy main street. By now he was probably cold. I walked up to him and touched his arm and he sort of recognized me, but was muttering in confusion. It was hard to know what he was thinking or where he might have thought he was going.

“Come on, Dad,” I said quietly. “Let’s go home.”

I was hoping he would comply easily and not attract attention, but he pulled his arm away, muttering unhappily. I took a breath and touched his arm again. This time he started moving slowly with me back toward our house.

He still towered over me then, but I was never afraid of him. There was no threat of violence in him toward us. He could be immovable, but he would never lash out.

I began to relax as we made our way back up the street, but then Dad stopped. I could only watch and look around frantically as Dad unzipped and began to pee right there on the sidewalk in front of someone’s house.

“Dad, you can’t do that,” I wailed, but I knew it was way too late. The embarrassment was excruciating, and I’m sure I felt a fleeting impulse to run, but I couldn’t do that, either. There was nothing to do but stand with him until he finished and I could get him moving again.

We got home without further incident. But I could never relax after that — you never knew when something like that might happen again.

Dad tried hard throughout his illness. Over and over he would repeat the litany of our names, “Paul and Bruce and Margaret.” He must have made a conscious decision to nail at least these few crucial facts as he felt so many others fade. It hurts me now to imagine how frightening that must have been for him. But his determination prevailed and he had those words until he died.

We knew he loved us right to the end.

~Paul Hyckie

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