Finding My Father

“Dad, I can’t understand what you’re saying.”

I strain to hear my father’s voice. He exerts himself to speak, wrinkling his forehead and the muscles of his face. He has something important he wants to convey, but his speech is garbled, a burble of feathery sounds with only an occasional word I can recognize. I move closer, listening to his whispers, scanning his face, searching his expression to garner some sense of what he’s trying to say.

My brother found dad on the floor of his apartment, incoherent and unable to get up. A CT scan at the ER showed that his brain was bleeding from a subdural hematoma, the blood pooling inside his skull, squeezing his brain to the side. Emergency surgery drained the fluid and relieved the pressure, but the damage has accelerated my father’s dementia. I flew into town to visit him and spell my brother, who lives nearby and handles the lion’s share of his care.

Dad’s dementia journey has been an up-and-down biplane ride through the clouds of the wild blue yonder. Synaptic waves climb and descend through different altitudes of lucidity. Sometimes he recognizes us, other times not. When he is occasionally clear enough to realize where he is, what is happening, that his wife of seven decades died three months ago, he demands to return to his old apartment, forcing us into heart-crushing arguments with him about why that can’t happen.

It is then that further layers of pain boil to the surface:  his inability to understand his situation, the anger he hurls at us, our feeble attempts to explain the medical facts, his accusations of betrayal, our wounded reactions at being blamed for our failures despite heroic efforts to care for him, all clumped together in knot at the top of my chest.

This journey is as confusing as it is profound. Perhaps I would not be able to digest its importance if it was not confusing, forcing me to relegate reason to its rightful place. The alchemy of it requires me to leave behind my lesser faculties and refine the greater ones. Identifying problems, making logical connections, researching options, prioritizing the steps, isolating variables to the right of the equal sign and solving for X –  all of these skills, so valuable in the smaller parts of my life, fail me in the face of the only question that has ever really mattered, the one we are presented with over and over again so we can get it at ever deeper levels:  how can I love, even here?

The dementia journey has moments of heartbreak and darkness, bouts of grief that break me, retreat so I begin to believe they are gone, and then return to pierce me again. There are times when I feel a loneliness so complete I am sure no one has ever felt such a weight. And even when I realize this is factually untrue, the feeling does not fade.

But there are also moments when the clouds part and a beam of light intrudes, when the journey shows me a slice of beauty so naked it shines and I am strangely grateful to be in the thicket with him. Two days ago, dad shook my hand and introduced himself, as if to a stranger, and began a long conversation about his life. Talking about us in the third person, he said he was proud of his two sons, and asked if we would join him in a prayer for his boys. We said of course, and the three of us held hands.

In a voice as clear as I have heard from him all week, he proceeded:  “Heavenly Father, please be with us, we know we are in your hands and we ask for your grace, please hold my sons in your care … they are fine young men …,” and then his mind stuttered and he lost the thread, stumbling for the familiar phrases before finally ending with, “in Jesus’ name we pray, Amen,” and then returned to the fogland of dreams and hallucinations that fill most of his day.

“Try again dad, I can’t hear you.”

He takes a shallow breath and gathers his strength for another attempt. His mannerisms, his cadence, the shrug of his eyebrows, where he will pause in a sentence, are all so familiar to me, I am hoping I can understand him if I can catch a few words. I lean in and sharpen my focus, listening for clues, reading his lips, concentrating with my eyes and ears, my whole body straining to glean some small hint. I am desperate to hear his thoughts, to be in conversation. I realize I have never listened to him this closely in my life, perhaps to anyone. I am trying with all of my will to enter his mind, to be present with him, to perform what I would almost call an act of divination.

I am moved to place my hand on his chest, to do by touch what we cannot accomplish with speech. He stops talking and looks into my eyes. The static clears. We find a common signal, a wavelength we can travel on.

 “Dad, I want you to know how much I care about you.” The frequency holds.

“You have been a great dad. I could not have had a better father. Thank you.”

I pat his thin, hollow chest just above his heart. The bones of his ribs rest against the flesh of my palm. The corners of his mouth relax into a smile. His eyes start to glisten. We have said all we need for the moment.

Photo by mari lezhava on Unsplash

4 Replies to “Finding My Father”

  1. Wow Steve – so beautifully expressed. You manage to articulate the rawest of emotions in a way that makes me feel them for you – with you. When there are no words that can be said or heard – all there is is love between us – and you have an abundance of that and I am sure that your dad certainly felt it.

    Sending you my love as you accompany your dad as far as you can on his final journey.


      1. Such a beautiful expression of love. My heart is with you. I have experienced the pain of dementia with a parent and friend. It is quite a journey.

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