I knew the rest of my evening would be difficult to get through when I found myself lingering on my mat in the hot yoga studio. My eyes closed, I counted my breaths silently, in and out. My thoughts, the ones I didn’t want to think, crowded in, stopping the count. My shoulders shook as I covered my eyes and attempted to both hold back the tears and hide them from others leaving the room. Gathering my wet towel and mat, pulling on my sweatshirt and exiting, I hid under my hood and walked slowly to my car.
I had asked for it. I had asked for an appointment to have my Dad’s mental acuity reassessed. Triggered by comments from him that displayed confusion, I knew he struggled for words, but not how much he fought to put them together.
“I didn’t know you’d moved into this house,” he had commented to me a few weeks ago after I parked in front of the house where I had been living with my family for three years. “How long have you been living here?”
He had been here as a visitor too many times to count—to this house, his old house, the family house.
I looked at my Dad before we got out of the car and said softly, “We’ve been here about three years, Dad.”
“Oh,” he said, looking down uncomfortably.
At the doctor’s office that afternoon, the young, fit Asian doctor in his designer loafers read from the standard test for memory loss:
“Count backwards from 100 by 7.”
“Remember these words because I’ll ask you what they are later: penny, apple, table.”
“Write a sentence, any sentence, here on this piece of paper.”
My Dad wrote, “Where is hope.”
The doctor looked up at me sharply. “That’s an interesting sentence.”
The visit ended with the doctor conveying the news that my Dad, who’d had a score just above the line signaling dementia on his previous visit a year ago, now scored just below it.
“Dementia,” he explained when I asked if it could be related to my Dad’s stroke ten years ago, “has many types. We don’t really have a way of finding out what kind it is and in a sense it doesn’t really matter as the treatment is the same.” Looking at me, he added, “You’ll need to plan ahead.”
I stared at the doctor, waiting for him to explain. He didn’t.
Dad and I didn’t speak about the diagnosis on the way home. He’d always had a way of deflecting bad news, as if negative words threatened his sunshine.
“I just think of my parents who died so young. My Dad had just retired from the shipyard and had all sorts of plans. I’ve had so many more changes than they had. It still surprises me that I’ve lived this long.”
As I drove, I listened to him, for more than the hundredth time, speak with gratitude about his 90-year life and of his Finnish father and mother who lost their farm in the Depression, a story he defaulted to often. His deep well of appreciation for the life he’d lived must have come from one of them, I thought.
We arrived back at his apartment at the assisted living facility. I watched him walk with his cane to the door under the blue awning. He stopped, turned, and waved at me before he went in.
I hadn’t spoken out loud about the diagnosis that evening—to my husband or anyone else, wanting somehow to not make it real by saying it out loud. And to keep it at bay by not letting my thoughts pick it up and turn it over. Now, sitting in the darkness in the car, my sweaty body cooling, I screamed silently.
“Plan ahead?” Hot tears streamed down my face. “How can I plan when I don’t know what ‘ahead’ looks like,” I wanted to shout at the doctor.
“Ahead” I can see my father vanishing before me, his memories leaking soundlessly through the invisible cracks in the windows and doors of his mind, as he slowly seeps away.
In the car under the street lights, succumbing to the tears, I looked over at an older man sitting on the window ledge of a closed business. Nodding off, he held a paper cup out. His head bobbed up and down, flopped to the side and then jerked up again. He never tipped the cup. I put the key in the ignition and drove home. Who would take this man to the doctor?
Planning ahead was part of the advice I’d received from the parent support group I’d attended regularly not long ago. “Think, plan, act,” they’d told me, and it helped. This support group wasn’t for parents whose daughters came home an hour late; it was for parents whose daughters came home at 10 am instead of 10 pm, smelling like alcohol and offering a brief “sorry” before crawling into bed for the rest of the day. The group wasn’t for parents whose daughters rolled their eyes at their Mom when she told them their skirt was too short; it was for moms of daughters who told them they were “a fucking bitch and didn’t know how to parent anyways so don’t bother even trying” if they mentioned a too short skirt.
As one of those moms, “Think, plan, act,” encouraged me to think first and to avoid saying things like, “You’re grounded forever,” in a fit of frustration. Angry words set a bad example. The words always escalated, with nowhere to go.
With my daughter, I could plan ahead. I could decide not to continue the contract for her cell phone, not give her rides to her partying friends. I could set boundaries for acceptable behavior in my house. I could not speak in anger. I could. And eventually, although the journey would be chaotic and painful, we would both arrive at better places. We both got “ahead.” Planning ahead helped with her.
Shedding my sweaty yoga clothes at home, my tears subsided in the warm shower. As I stepped out and reached for my towel, I wondered how my Dad could know that one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems was “Hope is the thing with feathers-/That perches in the soul”? I could hope that he could continue to deflect bad news and use sunny words. I could give him rides to the doctor. I could visit him often. I could be there to smile at him and nod in agreement when he told me for the fourth time in an hour how much the world had changed. Instead of planning ahead for an empty man, I could hope. Hope that his ending would be gentle. Hope that he would leave me before he lost himself.