Travels with Dad
—-This is a story of a complex relationship with my father, Al, who I came to love and understand after he was diagnosed with dementia.—-
While Grandma was living in the facility where I worked, my parents visited often. We had several gatherings on weekends in the Occupational Therapy department, which was where my office was, because it had a stove, a refrigerator, and a table with chairs. Dad was still driving, and getting there with Mom co-piloting. He was traditionally the driver, so even though he had dementia, Mom didn’t offer to drive. She just directed him when he was unsure of where to go.
Dad, Grandma, and my brother, Vincent
One Spring day, in 1999, I was in a meeting with my boss, Wes. A knock on his door got our attention. It was our receptionist, Neibert, wanting me to know that my father was there. She said that he was in the Occupational Therapy department waiting for me. I reacted with a look of surprise. Wes, catching a glimpse of that and knowing that my father had dementia, said in a supportive manner, “Go!”
I made my way down to the OT department as fast as I could. As I entered, I was stopped in my tracks. I was not prepared for what I saw. There was Al, sitting at the table, assembling nuts and bolts, which was an activity we used with some residents in Occupational Therapy to improve fine motor coordination.
When Al looked up and saw me, he yelled, “Hey!” He was clearly happy to see me. My co-worker, Debbie, who knew my father and knew about his deteriorating condition, had reacted swiftly when he appeared in the doorway of the OT department by “putting him to work” on this nut-and-bolt activity. She chose this activity because it was simple and masculine, and thought it would hold his attention until I could get there. She was right. He was so engrossed in fitting these pieces together, that it also gave me some time to meet with Debbie.
Debbie provided me with an account of what transpired when he appeared in the doorway. She questioned him to see if he was there to visit his mother. He said no. She then asked him if he was there to see “Diane”. “No”, again. She continued to try to ascertain his purpose for the visit by showing him my office and empty desk and chair, and said to him, “Are you looking for her?” “Yes!” he said with a flood of recognition of my space.
As she was telling me this story, a wave of sadness flowed through me as I came to the simple understanding that my father no longer recognized my name. Added to that sadness was an understanding that my father was excelling at, and highly interested in, a simple assembly activity. It was another challenge…adjusting to more losses. These characteristics of his personality were also significant fundamental losses for Al. A few more drops from a ledge.
I called my mother at work to let her know about my unexpected visitor. Her reaction was also one of shock, as I explained that he wasn’t really here for anything, at least not anything that Debbie or I could figure out. She let her boss know what happened, left work, and drove to the facility to pick him up.
As an exercise in acceptance of Al’s deteriorating existence, I reasoned that he didn’t really need to know my name anymore anyway. I just focused on being grateful that he still recognized me.