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.—-
My heart was pounding out of my chest as I drove into the driveway at my parent’s house that warm, sunny Saturday morning in September. The plan I had made to take my father for the day was unfolding. On the 30 minute drive to their house, I had second thoughts. I considered many unpleasant things occurring as a response to my upcoming offer to Dad to go for a ride with me. I was horrified at the thought that he would say “NO!” “NO” was the answer 99% of the time growing up…at least it felt that way. I could feel my body tense up as I played out these negative scenarios.
I arrived at their house around 9:30. He and Mom were in the living room. How would I approach him?, I thought. How would I respond if he refused? I considered all of these negative thoughts based on the person I had known, the person who seemed to always be against me. I was positive he hadn’t forgotten all of that.
When the moment was right, I blurted out the question: “Dad, do you want to go for a ride with me?” To my surprise, he jumped up and said “Yeah!” My mother and I looked at each other and chuckled. OK, I thought, here we go. So we hurried out the door, got into my van, and began our outing. The destination was Manchester, Vermont, a place my mother suggested because she and Dad had taken many rides there. It was only about 90 minutes away, so, if things weren’t working out, I would just turn around and bring him back home.
As we were driving along, I thought that I really had no idea who this man was sitting next to me. Sure, I knew a lot about all of the things he had been doing that were so out of character for him, but I didn’t really know him. The trip started out in silence, which I found really uncomfortable. So, as I saw things like old barns, small rivers, or vast open fields, I would say “Oh, wow, look at that!” and I would point so he could see what I was talking about. Each time, he’d respond by say things like “Oh yeah”, “Look at that” and “Wow”. I felt like I needed to entertain him to keep him interested in being with me.
We arrived in Manchester at lunch time. I was not familiar with the little town, so I just parked and we walked around to find a place to have lunch. We stumbled upon a little eatery called Christos Pizza and Pasta. Perfect, I thought. I found Italian food…just what he would want. We went in and stood at the counter. There was a huge menu on the wall. Dad was looking up at it, so I thought he was reading it to determine what sounded good for lunch. I decided to order ravioli and a salad and I let the girl know. She was waiting for Al to order…it was lunch time and quite busy. I asked him a couple of times if he knew what he wanted. He didn’t answer. It suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks! He can’t read! My father was incapable of ordering his own lunch!!! I quickly ordered soup and ravioli for him, and we moved along. I was bewildered. I was trying to process this sad and shocking piece of information. My father COULD NOT READ!
We had a quiet lunch. He was oblivious to my deep sadness of this realization. I watched him eat and enjoy every bite…like a kid, I guess. Who was this man? Our first trip revealed an unmistakable clue about the extent he was suffering from dementia.
I drove him home, trying to continue entertaining him, but my mood was over shadowed by what I had begun to really understand about my father. I was exhausted.
All in all though, our day was successful. He was pleasant, and seemed to really enjoy the ride and lunch, and spending the day with me. Maybe he had forgotten about all of our negative encounters. Or maybe at some level, he let bygones be bygones. I did. Either way, it left the door open for many more travels together.
When we arrived, my mother had been anxiously awaiting our arrival. I was glad to report that we had a nice day, and then I let her know that I discovered that Dad couldn’t read anymore. She already knew. This was not shocking news to her. I was glad that I wasn’t giving her bad news. She had enough “bad news” over the last several years.
As I was leaving to go home, I let her know that I would be back the next week. I had a good feeling about how the day went. He seemed to enjoy the ride and the day away from home, and I did too, but I held that thought as reserved optimism. I considered that this could have been an unusual day, and the real Al would emerge during another day trip, and things wouldn’t go so smoothly. Or, just maybe, my plan to give Mom some time to herself was really going to work. It sure did seemed like it, anyway.