From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Daddy’s Dance

Dancing . . . the body and the mind feel its gladdening influence.

William Ellery Channing

I loaded the last of my retreat supplies in the back of my minivan then kissed my husband and son good-bye. Not only was I excited about the ladies’ overnight retreat where I would be speaking, but I had mapped out a driving route that took me right through the town in which my parents lived. I planned to stop and spend a few hours with them, welcoming any opportunity to visit my mother and father, now eighty-three and eight-six years old. But often the visits were difficult.

Daddy was in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease, and his comprehension and communication were severely impaired. The progression of the illness was devastating, especially to my mother, his mate of sixty-six years. She was now more a caregiver than a wife, and often Daddy was unable to even recognize her face. I grieved for both of them as well as myself. I wasn’t ready to let go of the father I had known forever. He had been so full of life— singing, dancing, joking, laughing. Where had he gone? How did those Alzheimer’s tangles in his brain rob him of words, faces and places?

Many times Mama wanted to tell me of personal incidents, thinking I would understand, being the mother and caregiver of an adult son with special needs. But I didn’t want to hear humiliating details of Daddy’s debilitating disease. This was still my father, the man who held me on his lap and rocked me as a child, put me on my first horse to ride and taught me to drive in an old 1948 Ford pickup truck. This was the daddy who used to show up at my college dormitory to bring me home on weekends when he thought I had stayed away too long. There was no way to divorce myself from those memories, nor did I want to. I held them close to my heart.

Even with the progression of the disease, there were still small windows when Daddy was coherent, like the Christmas he hugged me and looked into my eyes and said, “You don’t come home enough.” I blinked back tears and said, “No, Daddy, I don’t.” He didn’t remember the responsibilities I had at my own home.

And just a few months earlier, when I called to tell him “Happy Birthday,” he gave me a delightful recap of his day before regressing into unintelligible words and phrases. Once when I presented him with a framed picture of myself as a gift, Mama asked, “Do you know who’s in that picture?”

He smiled and pointed directly at my face and said, “That’s my baby.”

Indeed, I would always be his baby girl.

But today, after arriving at my parents’ home, Daddy gave me a quick hug then went to the bedroom to take a nap while I sat at the kitchen table with Mama. She spilled out her fears, resentment and pain. She had no idea how to cope with Daddy’s anger when she didn’t fulfill his requests. But how could she possibly know what he wanted when she couldn’t understand his words or gestures?

Because of my own son’s lack of communication, I could identify with her frustration, but it seemed harder for my mother. This was her husband, and it wasn’t supposed to be this way. This was the time she had dreamed of traveling and relaxing after many years of hard work. Daddy got up from his nap several times to make trips to the bathroom, always requiring Mama’s help with snaps and zippers on his clothing. Neither of them liked this situation, and both were argumentative and irritated with each other.

Finally, I left for the retreat, but my heart was heavy. As I drove, I thought of the anger, fatigue and emotional pain that my parents were experiencing and wondered if they ever had a happy moment. I loved them and wanted to help, but had no idea what to do. As I guided the car along the highway, I prayed for peace, harmony, love, health and even joy in their lives.

The retreat provided a refreshing respite for my body and soul, and I was in great spirits as I headed back home. Again, I stopped for a visit with my parents, hoping things had improved.

I pulled into the driveway just ahead of my brother, and we congregated in the living room with his guitar. Monte played and sang several songs, then Mama and Daddy joined in. By the time they hit the old hymn, “I Saw the Light,” Daddy was singing every word from memory and smiling from ear to ear. I sat in awe as I watched his whole countenance change.

Suddenly, Daddy, who normally shuffled and slumped when he walked, jumped up from the couch and began to dance a jig to the music, his face alive with pure joy and fun. Then he put his hands out toward Mother. She stood up beside him, and together they two-stepped across the living-room floor, both of them laughing and gliding as I remembered them doing when I was a child.

I sat in a chair, clapping my hands in time to the music and wiping away tears. I had forgotten how much music had been a part of our family while growing up. I couldn’t count how many times Mama and Daddy had stood beside our old upright piano and sang while I barely plunked out a melody. Daddy also led the singing at our little country church and even sang while he worked in the fields, often letting me ride on the horse’s broad back while he guided the plow behind. My mind flooded with wonderful memories. Good times and hard times, but happy times. Soon Daddy plopped down on the couch, a smile still lighting up his face.

I left for home with a new peace and joy in my heart and again prayed for my parents while I drove, this time thanking God for the love and happy times they still enjoyed.

I know there will still be hard times in the future, but I’m thankful for this beautiful memory and reminder to celebrate every moment in life—perhaps, even dance in it!

Louise Tucker Jones

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