by Christine Feldman
Today is Monday, one of the two days of the week I visit my parents. It’s a schedule I try to stick to because I take comfort in routines and because I think the regularity of that routine may be helpful to my parents and to their caregivers as well. One day a week doesn’t feel like enough; more than two days feels too overwhelming. So, I mostly stick with two.
I plan to see Dad first today. Some days I bring Mom with me even though she doesn’t truly remember who he is anymore. She has no recollection of the day they met in college when Dad jockeyed to sit behind her so he could flirt with her about her long, blonde hair—he begged her never to cut it. She admits she doesn’t know why she wants to continue to visit him, but she says she feels somehow that it is important. And when she does see him, this man who is now a stranger to her, she is so sweet to him and holds his hand. But today it’s just me on my own.
Dad’s now in the end stages of his Alzheimer’s. He’s been on hospice care for several weeks and is a shadow of his former self, mentally and physically. Bed bound, he’s unable to do even the most basic things for himself. He is given meals in that bed, bathed in that bed, shaved in that bed. Sometimes he is asleep when I visit; other times he’s awake but doesn’t seem to see me, reaching instead for hallucinations only he can see. Sometimes it doesn’t seem possible that this frail figure is the same man who was such a force of nature in my eyes as a child. That this is the same man I remember being the only person in a crowded theater bold enough to speak up to a heckler calling out vulgarities at the screen.
His eyes are open today. I’ve brought more family photos to add to the ones already on the wall beside his bed. I’ve even found one of his beloved grandmother, and I think he reacts to the mention of her name. I say names aloud as I show others to him: parents, wife, children, grandchildren. His eyes close halfway through the parade of faces. I press the pictures onto the wall anyway and hope he will see them later.
It’s been a long time since I was able to have a conversation with my father. He sometimes responds now to simple yes or no questions, but anything more than that draws either unintelligible mumbling or silence. Since chit-chat isn’t really possible, I prattle cheerfully in his direction about most anything I can think of: family updates, my hopes for the garden this year, or random memories from my childhood. Like Dad acting as tooth fairy in Bermuda shorts and with a falsetto voice, cracking up my sisters and me. And does he remember walking with me in the woods because I’d read Bambi and wanted to find a deer? We had no luck, so he took me to a petting zoo so I could pet one for real.
He shows no reaction to these stories. I don’t know if he absorbs anything I’m saying, but I hope the sound of my voice is comforting and that on some level he knows me.
Recently I’ve begun reading aloud to him as a way to fill the silence. I note the time on my phone, thinking about my upcoming visit with Mom and the schedule I need to keep, and I open up the book I’ve brought. Its stories are short, so it’s easy to fit several into a single visit. Most are lighthearted. Today, though, my voice cracks at an unexpected moment, when the narrator writes that in the midst of a conundrum, she did what she has often done throughout her life: she calls her dad.
I read on, finishing that story and going on to the next one. Movement out of the corner of my eye makes me glance up: Dad is reaching upward for something only he can see and mumbling. I ask if he’s okay, but he doesn’t respond. I ramble on again about random things, like the stuffed dog my older sister got him that looks so much like a dog Dad had fifty years ago. Dad seems to settle down, so I go back to my reading, deciding to finish this story and head out before it gets any later.
When I close the book, I get up from my chair to hug Dad goodbye. It’s more like me leaning over him, holding his shoulders with my hands as I press my cheek to his. And I tell him the things that have become a habit recently when I end a visit with him, things that I want to be sure to say in case he takes a turn for the worse before I can get back here again. I tell him I love him and I thank him for being my dad. I let him know that Mom is fine and that everything is taken care of so he doesn’t need to worry. And I tell him that I’ll see him again next time and we’ll read some more stories together. Then I straighten to go.
Or at least, that is what usually happens. Today, as I lean over him thinking already about my upcoming visit with Mom and of the things I want to be sure not to forget to tell her caregiver, Dad lifts his arms and puts them on mine, or as close as he can come to doing that now since he’s so weak. He holds me close to him with surprising strength in a hug that is longer than our usual one. I squeeze him back. It is several moments before we let go. The to-do list is forgotten.
It was a good visit.