There is nothing easy about watching a beloved father drift out of his own life. Alzheimer’s, old age, senility – whatever you call it – it’s painful and distressing for everyone.
Since Mom passed away 5 years ago, Dad has lived with one or another of his daughters and their families. Most of the time he was with Mary and Tom in New Hampshire (and many hats off to them for their endless patience and generosity), but he also spent a year with us in India and months at a time with Lucy and Moy. As he got older and his memory more and more impaired, his care grew increasingly difficult.
When we made the decision to move Dad into an assisted living centre, I think we all felt sad, disappointed with ourselves and guilty (we are Catholic, after all. Guilt is our speciality).
Some of us felt it worse than others – I, being one of those people burdened with a sense of responsibility for everyone and everything, found it particularly hard. Mom and Dad took people in our entire lives. We grew up with three of our grandparents living with us and an almost endless parade of strays – an elderly man whose house had burned down; a pregnant teen and later, her baby; a suicidal young woman; a friend of Mom’s who had no other family to live with when she grew too old to care for herself. We saw our parents make room for everyone – precious few of whom were “easy” guests – and yet here we were sending Dad off.
The day I got Mary’s email that a place had opened for Dad in our centre of choice (there are long waiting lists!), I kind of lost it. My father in a nursing home! No! I had an appointment that morning to which I had to drive (usually I walk to work) and I remember gunning the motor so hard I shocked even myself. I drove out of the driveway and then idled in the street, uncertain of where I was going or what I had meant to do. My husband came out, concerned. “Go home,” he said. “You need to see him.”
Impulsively, I decided to return to the US to be with Dad during the transition, hoping that I might make it easier for him, for my siblings and – perhaps most of all – myself.
How amazing to find that that is exactly what happened.
I went expecting to be confirmed in all my worst fears. I went expecting to feel even more guilty, even more implicated.
Instead, Dad looked better than I had seen him in a long time. At home, he would go for several days without a shower, saying he was too tired or he didn’t really need one. In the centre, with a routine and a process, he bathes every day – and looks fit and charming as a result. Like so many of us, he makes a special effort for outsiders. At home he could be snipey and bitter; prone to pouting, resentment and childish outbursts. In the centre, he is charm and flirtation and the apple of everyone’s eye. The staff all love him; the other residents want to be his friend.
And the things that made life difficult at home – the yanking out of the catheter so that he would drip urine all over the house; the tantrums, the incontinence – don’t seem to be happening at the centre.
But for me, the most important proof that we had made the right decision came on my last day in America. As I had done every day I was there, I went in to visit. But this time, I reminded him that I was going home.
“You know I’m going back home today, right, Dad?”
“Oh yes,” he said. “You’re going back to India.”
A pause while I took in the fact that he remembered where I lived.
“I don’t want you to feel in any way upset about leaving me. They are all very kind to me here. They bring me my meals; they take very good care of me.”
“Oh, Daddy!” I said. “Are you happy here, then?”
He smiled. “Happy? Well, I’d rather have you around all the time.”
“But I know you should be in India. I know what wonderful work you are doing there. I know that is where you are meant to be. And I do not want you regretting your decisions even for one moment. I’m very proud of you.”
It was as if the clouds had opened for one sweet moment and Daddy’s mind was clear and unimpeded. Ashirwad diya. He gave me his blessing. Then, just as quickly, the veil came down again. As I said goodbye, it was clear to me that for him, I had already left. I was no longer there.
And yet, as I stood in the doorway gazing at him, hoping against hope for one last sign of recognition, he looked up:
and seemed to say: “Get on with it now! You’ve got work to do!”
What a great trip. I am so glad that I went. And I am so glad that he and Mom brought me up that I could come back, to do the work I was sent here to do.