Traversing Icy Roads
“When is Christmas?” my father asks.
The question stings. He asks it repeatedly, which only confirms what I’m trying hard not to acknowledge: I’m losing him. Damn dementia.
I take a deep breath. “Well, Dad, we just got done with Christmas,” I answer. “It’s February now, so we’ve got awhile until the next one.”
It’s a snowy day in February and we’re in the car, on our way home from the dentist. My mind is reeling because I’ve just learned my father has five cavities and has to have three teeth pulled. This means I have to make space on my already full calendar to bring him back to the dentist three more times. It also means he’s not brushing his teeth.
“Hmmm,” he finally says in response. We both know he should remember what month we’re in. However, it’s much easier, for him anyway, to pretend things are fine; to act as if he is as sharp as he ever was. So I do, too. Externally I am a pillar of composure. Internally, I am screaming. Because when he mentions Christmas, which he does often, it triggers the alarm in my brain.
It’s ironic that my father is now fixated on Christmas. Growing up, my family was not particularly festive. We never trimmed the house with twinkling holiday lights. No one baked sugar cookies or hung an evergreen wreath on the front door. No midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Though we put up our tree every year and celebrated the day with relatives, we were basically a no-fuss family. And Dad was grumpy, always complaining about the holidays.
One particular memory of him stands out in my mind. I am 12, maybe 13, and standing in the front of the Christmas tree in our family room. I have holiday music blaring on the stereo. Perhaps it was my Christmas with the Chipmunks album, or maybe Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Mom was still at work, my brother out with friends, so I was home alone. My goal: Fix the tree. By fix, I mean move the ornaments around to my liking, because well, Mom just didn’t get it right. I was excited, there were only three days left of school until Christmas break, presents under the tree with my name on them, and Grandpa and Grandpa were flying in from Arizona this weekend. As I moved the tiny snow globe with Santa in his sleigh, joy flowed through my veins.
It was then that my father walked in. He took one look at the tree and then at me. With tired eyes, he said, “God, I hate Christmas.” My heart sank. Why does he do this? Why does he say this? How can anyone hate Christmas?
The mood was ruined. Deflated, I gave up my quest and went straight up to my room. Stretched out on my bed, I stared at the blank white slate of the ceiling. What right did my father have to ruin Christmas for me? Why did he get to walk in the door with his stupid attitude and spread his negative mood like a virus?
I vowed that when I was an adult, I would be different. I would make the holiday season special. Lights, cookies, wreaths, and presents galore. And maybe even church.
Though my father’s pungent mood upset me, I knew it would end. Because every year, by the time December 24th hit, Dad would lighten up. He did all his shopping on Christmas Eve, joking that everything was half-price by then. I have a vision of him, walking in the house, drugstore shopping bags in both hands, humming holiday tunes. When we got to this point, I could exhale; everything would be okay. Dad would wrap all his gifts in newspaper (by then our supply of Christmas wrap was depleted) and place them under the tree. On Christmas morning he would wake up happy again. At least until the following December.
The snow is accumulating now so I have to dodge the icy spots on the street. My car sensors create a symphony of beeps, alerting me that Dad and I are sliding on dirty slush. The traffic is thick, crawling. I take a deep breath; This too shall pass. The words come in the voice of my mother; she said them often while she was here. They fail to comfort me now. Mom passed away two years ago and though Dad lives in an assisted living apartment, I am his person now. His helper, the one who takes him to the dentist, pays his bills, buys all his clothes. I do all this while also working part-time and raising three kids.
I hear Dad muttering, but I can’t understand him. His Parkinson’s disease affects his speech while his dementia inhibits his executive functioning or thinking skills. It makes it hard to follow what he’s saying.
“Dad, I didn’t hear you. Can you say that again?”
I ignore the swoosh, swoosh of the windshield wipers, mentally block out the radio, and stretch my neck toward him.
“So what did the dentist say?” he repeats.
“Well, you have five cavities and have to get three teeth pulled.”
“Oh. Well, guess we are supporting the dentist now,” he answers. I am split in two by his comment. I love that my father still has his sense of humor. I hate that he is falling apart.
“Dad, have you been brushing your teeth? You have to brush your teeth.”
“I can do better,” he says. If only I could believe him. He turns his head and looks out the window, as if ashamed. My mind begins its routine spin.
Help me, God. Tell me what I need to do. Can I get the assisted living staff to make sure he brushes every day? Will they even do that? Will it cost more? What else is he not doing?
In 1994, the year my daughter Sarah was born, Dad went out and bought a nine-foot tall plastic Santa that lit up. He proudly placed the red and white Saint Nick on the front porch of their house. It’s for Sarah, he said. He took great joy in showing Sarah how Santa lit up. I had to chuckle to myself; my father, the man who for years barked about how much he hated Christmas, was decorating his house for his 11-month-old granddaughter.
With the addition of each grandchild, Dad’s cynicism for the holiday season faded more and more. By the time my youngest daughter was born, Dad spent the entire month of December sharing the joys of the season with my children. He drove them around to see holiday lights. Bought them fancy bakery store snowmen cookies. For years he teased my daughters, telling them Christmas was cancelled. Santa had broken his leg and couldn’t drive the sled. The girls would giggle over Grandpa and his silly story.
What broke the dam in his heart, led him to embrace the holidays, I’ve often wondered. Was it the birth of his grandkids? Did he mellow with age? Did he finally accept that the world was going to celebrate with or without him?
This year, Dad barely interacted with any of us on Christmas Eve. After our meal, my husband helped him into a chair in the family room where he sat and stared at all of us. It was as if he couldn’t keep up with what was happening with so many people around him. My daughter Sarah went over and sat on the arm of his chair.
Wrapping her arms around him she said, “Hey Grandpa, I heard Santa broke his leg this year.”
Dad smiled but said nothing.
We’re only a mile or so away from Dad’s place but now we’re stuck in traffic. I check my watch: 11:47 AM. If we can get there in ten minutes he’ll make it to lunch, otherwise I’ll have to get the staff to rummage up something for him.
“You hungry Dad?”
“Sure,” he says.
“Well, hopefully I can get you back in time for lunch, if not I’ll get Chef Randy to make you a sandwich.”
Just a year ago, I’d have gladly taken Dad out to lunch. I’d have enjoyed it, too. But now, now his hands are so rigid. He can’t hold his food properly. He spills everywhere, gets food stuck in his beard. When I try to help him, he glares. Though his brain cells are diminishing by the day, he still has his pride.
As my father’s health declines, I try to educate myself on his disease. His mumbling and low voice are physical symptoms of Parkinson’s. Defects in the auditory processing section of his brain means he can no longer decipher his volume of speech. The weakening vocal muscles cause him to slur his words. It reminds me of when my girls were young, trying to express their needs without the verbal capacity to do so. Only with toddlers, the muscles will advance with time. Not so with him.
The dementia is more difficult. Symptoms vary from person to person. I knew enough to understand Dad might get confused on what day it was or become nervous in a crowd. What I didn’t know was that he would struggle with understanding why he needed to shower or how to get himself dressed. As I am confronted with such situations, my emotions spin out of control. I become frustrated, sad, and overwhelmed. I get angry.
Angry when my father can’t figure out how to tie his shoes. Aggravated when he asks how to use his belt, a complete enigma to him. Frustrated when he can’t remember how to turn the TV on. Irate when he asks about Christmas. Why the hell does he ask about Christmas all the time?
Though I pray about it often, the stress wells up within me, rising to the surface, unwarranted and without invitation. Sometimes I play the martyr, feel sorry for myself simply because I don’t know how to fix this. I do know better than to ever take my emotions out on him. I love him too much to ever want him to feel like a burden. Yet still, I feel so angry, resentful, and riddled with guilt. What’s wrong with me? What kind of daughter feels this way?
The snow is coming down faster now. I make a right turn and immediately hit ice. I pump the breaks and correct by turning the steering wheel. Dad doesn’t seem to notice. At least he’s not saying anything. Thank God, I think to myself; I know his comment would circle back to Christmas.
Mere weeks ago, I struggled to get our decorations and Christmas tree up. Who cares, it’s all so much work. I couldn’t muster the strength to feel merry. I prayed for God to soften my heart but to no avail. Instead I managed to do the basics, mostly for the kids, but did so out of duty. I never got around to putting up the exterior lights or baking cookies, never hung the wreath on the door. My mind was a dungeon. What’s to celebrate? Mom is gone and Dad is losing his mind. How can anyone feel festive when there is so much hardship in the world?
As I stare out the window and wait for the traffic to move, I watch the beautiful white snowflakes fall from the sky. One by one they tumble down from the sky. How sad that the pure white of each snowflake disappears when it lands on ground and joins the muddy street slush.
The year her lungs began to fail her, Mom asked to go to Christmas Eve services with my family. Neither Mom nor Dad had seen the inside of a church in decades, so the request came as a surprise. That night we loaded my family of five plus my parents into our Honda Odyssey and headed to our church. My youngest daughter, four years old at the time, was excited to have her grandparents at church with her. When the pastor began to say the Lord’s Prayer, she crawled up into my father’s lap and whispered in his ear, “Do you know this one Grandpa? ‘Cause I can help you.”
It’s perhaps one of my favorite holiday memories.
“Are we there yet?” Dad mumbles.
“Almost,” I reply, “Just need to get around the corner.”
I look over at my father; he is staring into space now. I remind myself that I can do this. Though the pendulum of fear and grief sway within me, I will focus on my anchor, words I recently discovered at a winter writers’ retreat.
The retreat was held on the second weekend of December. I had a million other things I needed to be doing. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to go, but more like a sense of needing to be there. I contacted a friend, a Christian author who’d gone to the same retreat last year. “Go,” she said, “It’s like a spiritual experience.” It was enough to make me sign up. Besides, I needed a break from Dad, needed to do something for myself. So I went.
The event was unlike anything I’d ever been to. There were 10 of us. We met at an author’s home. As we gathered around a huge farmhouse table in her dining room, we shared about our love for writing. We discussed why we write, our deep need to tell stories, how desperately we needed our words to make sense of the world.
The synergy in the room was visceral. The hairs on the back on my neck stood up as we delved into our discussion. Every word spoken by the others made an imprint on my brain. I was on high alert, ready to harbor great wisdom on the craft of writing.
After our morning discussion and lunch, the group split up. Each of us was to spend time alone writing. That evening, we reconvened to share our stories.
Halfway through our session, Nancy, a nanny from Boston, stood up to read her essay. Nancy was younger than the rest of us and soft-spoken. She’d never dabbled in creative writing before and admitted to being scared to be in the company of more experienced writers. We did our best to reassure her. After all, writers are nothing if not familiar with the fear of being vulnerable.
Nancy began by giving us a bit of background. At 16 she’d lost her mother to early-onset Alzheimer’s. The experience was so difficult that even now, at age 22, she’d rarely spoken of it to anyone. But today, upon passing a nursing home on her walk to the library, the memories of her mother had come back in a flood. The encounter gave her the courage to finally write about her experience.
As Nancy read her story, I felt my insides dissolving. Her poetic lines about her struggles hit me with full force. She spoke of the pain she experienced when her mother started losing her mind. How she was too embarrassed to have her friends come over. How a trip to the mall turned into a fiasco when her mom got lost. How watching her mother stare at her toothbrush as if she’d never seen one before brought her to her knees.
The dam in my heart collapsed. I could no longer hold back the rush of emotions. Salty tears slid down my cheeks, taking with them my anger, denial and resentment.
I am not alone.
To attempt to recount Nancy’s lyrical narrative would be a travesty. Her words, so much more beautiful than my own, cannot be adequately restated. But seven simple words secured themselves in my heart:
“I had to learn to love the broken pieces.”
Yes, Dad is broken. As I grieve the loss of my father’s brain, I realize, so am I.
Despite the ice, we arrive safely to my father’s assisted living facility. I pull into the parking lot, park the car and get out. I open his car door, unbuckle his seat belt and guide my father into the building.
Dad looks up at the sky, “Boy, it’s really coming down,” he says, his blue eyes a sharp contrast against the flurry of icy droplets. He turns to look at me and asks, “Now when is Christmas?”
I grab my father’s arm so he won’t slip and fall. I take a deep breath and slowly exhale. “Oh Dad,” I say grasping him tightly, “It’s going to be awhile. Let’s get you inside where it’s warm.”
Tracy Line is a veteran freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Publishing credits include Atlanta Parent, Babyzone.com, Internet Cafe Devotions, P31 magazine, the Polk Street Review, Toastmasters magazine and many others. Follow her on Twitter: @TheWriterTracy