Dear Dad :: A Family Journey Into Dementia

Dear Dad,

There just isn’t anyone quite like you. You are a one of a kind guy. I realize that sounds trite. But many others, even those outside our family, concur on this point. You were always stirring the pot and playing practical jokes. Anyone who has met you quickly comes to find out that you have a playful, joyful spirit that genuinely has never met a stranger.

And this is why I think EVERY child is attracted to you like a bayou-born mosquito to an electrified zapping light.

You are so special that it’s irresistible.

I had an inkling of this as your daughter growing up, but now that I see you through my kids’ eyes, that irresistible nature of yours is beyond special. It’s a bonding glue for our family through the most trying of times. See, motherhood is hard some days – much harder than I had anticipated, and the comfort you have brought to me and my children is immeasurably valuable – a life preserver when needed most. 

Years ago when I was around 9 years old, we went for a hike together out on an Oklahoma farm paving our way through some underbrush making our ways toward the creek. I took a confident step quickly tempered by a rattling, hissing snake making its way out of my footpath into the shadows. As I was frozen in fear, you tried to goad me forward, “Come on, let’s get moving. C’mon, it’s not a big deal.” As I stood there paralyzed in fear, you calmly grabbed my shoulders, looked me straight in the eyes, and said one of the most significant life lessons I have ever been taught, “You can live in fear, but you will not go anywhere. Fear will freeze you up…if you let it. Or you can choose to be brave and go on adventures. Life will be very boring if you don’t ever take chances.” You have no idea how many times I have repeated this to myself through the years and actually envisioned myself there with you standing on that thicket contemplating my next step. That day and many days since I made up my mind to take the next step and have a great adventure with you.

There are countless memories I have of the impact you have had on my life, but memories are a funny thing. While I have all these amazingly vivid memories of our shared journey, you are beginning to lose your recollection of these life moments. I had read about memory loss and dementia, and I felt that I was prepared for this possible eventuality in our family. But now that I am standing here listening to you repeat stories to me or easily get turned around, I realize I’m as ill-equipped emotionally as I could ever be. 

The pain of seeing you retreat from our family functions into your own world is probably the worst. That just isn’t the extroverted man we have known or the Gramps the kids have delighted in teasing their whole lives. Mom is struggling to deal with the shift from a partner to a caretaker, even though her instincts soundly kick into high gear to take care of whatever needs taking care of and more. Her true partner, her sounding board, her one-and-only for over 50 years isn’t so confident in financial or home repair matters as he once was. In fact there is a hint of fear from you. Not fear for yourself, but those around you – especially mom. This is something I didn’t even know was possible, Dad. My fearless daddy had the answers or at least the insight to address life head on. Now as you retreat, I will rely on the insight you have provided in years past to get me through these coming years.

Dad, this new beginning presents a lot of firsts for us. We are learning new ways to speak to one another. I actually have to seriously be a grown up with you and mom now. I innocently, naively, and carelessly thought I would be taken care of until the end of my days. Just as you were always there to rescue me on the side of the road when I had a flat tire or simply give me a hug when I felt low, I thought this was an eternal gift I was bestowed. I now have to face the inevitable truth that I will be a caretaker of my aging parents, just as you dutifully were to yours.

While we walk this new journey, we are and will both be humbled. But I will always remember that I have a choice to live in fear or be brave and really live and to selflessly give to you as you have to me and our family all my life.

I love you, Dad.

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