My Dad and I weren’t close. In fact you could say we were NOT close. He really didn’t like me very much and for a variety of unrelated reasons I didn’t like him much either. I believe that he wanted to like me; after all I was his daughter. But I was the youngest and he feared, I mean really, really feared growing old. My theory is that as I (the youngest) aged I stood as a constant reminder that he also aged. My older brother and sister could age, but not the youngest. If she aged, so did he. So maybe it was his own fear that kept him from liking me. Did he love me? Who knows? I suppose his massive fear could have kept him from that too.
Needless to say I don’t have many fond memories of spending time with Dad. Except one that really stands out. It will seem odd to those who don’t truly understand our relationship but it significant to me. It happened few months before his death when I visited him in the nursing home. He was only in the home for a couple of weeks but they took really good care of him. In his advanced state of Alzheimer’s, they knew how to keep his mind and body stimulated to keep him happy and just alive.
On this particular day Dad was in the Activities Room. A group of residents, all strapped and padded into their wheel chairs, were sitting in a circle. I stood outside the room for a minute and watch as they bounced a ball around the room with the nurse. They were all having a good time with this childhood game when the nurse noticed me watching and invited me in. Dad was sitting just inside the door and positioned so he had not seen me standing there before. He looked up and the biggest smile came over him. He reached out his hand and took mine as his face lit up. He tried over and over to get out of his chair, which was impossible the way he was carefully padded in. But he tried and said over and over, “I need to give you a hug.” “I’m so happy to see you.” “I haven’t seen you in three years.” It was touching and a little comical. I leaned over, gave him a big hug, and told him I had seen him two days ago. He was unconvinced and still elated to see me. Finally the nurse asked, “Howard, do you know who this is?” Without hesitation he replied “NO, but I’m so happy she’s here.” I had to laugh. I was so touched at his joy to see me it didn’t really matter that he didn’t know who I was.
I told Dad that I was his daughter, Julie. It didn’t faze him. He didn’t know and didn’t care; he was just happy to see me whoever I was. I’m sure this will sound strange, but I can’t tell you the joy I felt at that moment. I never remember feeling that loved from my Dad. I never remember feeling that wanted or welcomed from my Dad.
Dad decided we should go outside. He scooted his feet on the floor below his wheelchair and lead me to the courtyard of the nursing home. This is a place where the residents can get outside and still be in an enclosed area so they won’t wonder off. It was sunny but a bit cool so we were the only ones out there. This made it easier to talk. Now I use the term “talk” loosely. If you have ever talked to a person with advanced Alzheimer’s it’s a broken, disjointed conversation and often doesn’t make any sense at all. But we talked none the less.
At one point he seemed to understand that I was family, or maybe he just wanted to talk about family. Again who knows? He asked about various family members, so I got out my cell phone and suggested we make some calls. He had a little trouble with the concept of a cell phone but once he loved the idea of calling people. First we called my brother, Ted. When Ted answered I explained what was going on then held the cell phone up to Dad’s right ear. He immediately grabbed it and put it to his left ear. Because he could not manage to hold it himself, I had to reach around the front of his neck and hold the phone awkwardly to his ear. Now another thing about Alzheimer’s patients is that they are constantly in motion. So here I am, standing on Dad’s right side, cradling the phone across the front of his body to his left ear, keeping my head as close to the phone as possible so could hear when the conversation was over, and keeping pace with an erratically moving wheelchair without getting run over by the wheelchair or the gauntlet of tables and chairs on the courtyard patio. (ya, that’s going to leave a mark)
After that call, Dad was fascinated with my cell phone. He wanted to call Ellen, my sister. This time I positioned myself on his left side. While holding the phone was still an interesting task it I could at least avoid reaching across his body. After that he wanted to call Julie. Wow, now I was stuck. First of all I didn’t know what to say. Do I tell him that I AM Julie? Do I fake a call to myself? I had no idea, so I did the only logical thing I could think of. I told him she wasn’t home and changed the subject.
I later found out that I should have told him that I am Julie and try to get him to understand. In hindsight, it may not have mattered. And frankly, we had such a great day I really don’t care if my answer was right or wrong. The fact was, he was happy, he was happy I was there, he wanted to talk with me (the person visiting him), and he wanted to call me (the real me) on the phone. It was a good day.