Dancing with Death

When I started blogging, my friend David told me to blog about the things that I think about, the things that matter to me.  Lately I’ve been thinking about the decline of my father’s health.  That’s why I’m posting this on both blogs.  I’ve not had much free mental space over the last few months because my dad has been there taking it up with a thousand questions of varying sizes and shapes.

My dad is demented, meaning, he has dementia.  What is the appropriate form for that sentence?  Is my father demented?  It feels like a misuse of language to have to write that way: my father has dementia.  It’s one word or two too long.  Plus, it isn’t true.  Particularly since it feels most days like dementia has my father, like the synapses in his brain are freezing over or cracking or deteriorating or doing anything but firing in the way all my college classes suggested synapses do.  I paid a lot of attention to those classes at U of I.  I got mostly good grades, though I hated statistics and could have done better in Don Dulany’s course, especially if I hadn’t been devoting all that time talking to schizophrenics at strange hours through the night.  But these days I’m thinking that I could have paid more attention.

Anyway, my father’s dementia and the accompanying decline in his condition is essentially unsettling.  My experience of him and his health feels like all the sturdy things in my history with him are getting up, spinning around, and landing in a different place from before.  It feels like every conversation with him, each road trip to Little Rock, leaves me tired from the passing lane and sweating after a long dance with this disease.

And I’m not the one doing the real dancing.  I catch myself to say this.  Over the last six months, since we found out about the strokes and since we’ve started to confuse (i.e., not be able to tell) the stroke’s grip for the dementia’s, I’ve remembered consciously that it’s my father who is suffering.  And that’s the worse part.  Not our collective suffering as we watch or join in as a family responding to our loss and grief.  His suffering is the basic problem here.  I can recover.  Can he?

And I wonder to myself if there is a little grace in my dad not knowing how much he’s suffering.  And I check myself again at the hint of such arrogance.  Can my father, complex man that he is, be written off by my saying, “Well, he doesn’t realize what’s happening to him?”  How can I trust that?  How can I take comfort in the corrosive way the disease is handling him so that his head is all messed up, his memories following?  How can I be encouraged that his brain, eating or sucking or dropping away all the memories which make him him, is so distorting his reality that he is in some way spared?

I ask these questions because I want to be spared.  My father isn’t spared.  We aren’t either.  And these instances of death, these suspensions of time, when I’m not sure if my dad is “there” or “somewhere else,” are not healing.  They are small deaths, and they are upsetting, unsettling, and disturbing.  He is as pained as anyone in this.  He didn’t wish for this end.  And he can’t find the ways to express that any more.  Not on most days.  He’s the one really dancing.

Even though his feet are inching into a straddle some days and stepping normally on other days, it is my dad’s feet that I’m watching.  It is his pair of legs that my eyes fell to the other day as he walked to me on the arm of that nurse.  I had been buzzed into the acute care facility in Searcy, the place where they specialize in treating elderly men and women with psychiatric problems stemming from the disease I keep thinking looks like Skeletor.

He was shuffling slowly, arm wrapped in a sturdy nurse who introduced himself as Billy.  Daddy recognized me and that recognition was a gift even if I was struck by my dad’s gait.  It was an interior compromise, thankful for the recognition and willingness to overlook the pulchritude.

I could overlook that daddy looked bad, really bad.  Bad the way he was when he had the stroke in July.  Bad like when I first saw him in July, my brother Mark at my side, I was wondering where my father’s weight went.  Bad like I saw him for the first time as a truly different figure, no longer the man with muscles and a bench press in his basement with weights I’d never be able to lift.

My father’s arm was attached to his nurse, straddling, dancing, and I met him the rest of the way, took the other arm, and listened to the music of his experience and started dancing with him.  We walked slowly, really slowly.  And instead of going to the designated room, we sat in the closest chairs.  I suggested them because the distance to the room was too far for daddy after the stint from his room and too far for me after driving those eleven hours.

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