If you've ever known someone with OCD tendencies and had that person work for you within their realm of obsession, have you ever stood back and marveled at the work they completed?
My father is definitely on the OCD spectrum when it comes to things like gardening. He was feeling restless, according to Mom, so she asked me to come up with something for him to do. Of course in my garden there's always something to do. Weeding that was left far behind in the distant past. All sorts of little "I shoulds..." laying about, laughing at me. Weeds getting taller by the day.
I had a patch of lamb's ears (See the bottom photo in that link and imagine everything to the right of that section being overwhelmed with lamb's ears.) that was rapidly taking over the yard that I kept meaning to get to, but everything else was a higher priority. Tomatoes! Farming! Twins! Hummingbirds! However, that didn't matter to the lamb's ears. They just kept on growing.
Until Dad came along.
He spent the better part of the week working away at it and did a fantastic job. While he worked on his section, I weeded to his left (When the twins let me out of the house.) and we talked. We don't talk about anything really deep, just gardening or the twins or what it was like for him growing up (He turned 75 this year.). It was really good and terribly heartbreaking at the same time. As we talked, it became apparent that the Alzheimer's is stripping away parts of his identity. His memories slip away in the midst of talking about them. In the middle of a sentence he'd pause, stare at the ground and then shake his head bemusedly.
"Nope. It's gone."
Whatever the thought was, no matter how trivial or sublime, ends the same way. The same shake of the head, his hazel eyes watery with age glance at me ruefully for a moment and then he tells me "It's gone.". He doesn't look frightened, although I am. I think the medication he's on helps him to be calm during these bouts with forgetfulness. You can try to trigger whatever the memory was, but only if you were completely following the conversation and were able to guess what he was about to talk about next. Mostly we just let those moments slip past like tiny fish in a stream: too slippery to hold for long and not big enough to make a meal.
Dad relies on Mom to remember for him, even things that happened well before she was born. I'm not sure if my mother has my father's entire history memorized or if he just thinks she does, but she does a great job of filling in parts you might really want to know. He is able to recall memories from way back in his personal history (Pre-Hatchet Era.), but can't recall anything within short term memory or even back when we were kids (And let's face it, for some of us that was ~40 years ago!).
Every time we get together I can't help but wonder if he really remembers who I am. He and mom are forever calling me Cindy (My younger sister's name.) and calling her by my name (Cindy complains that they call her by my name when I'm not around, so I guess we're even.). They've been doing that since I left for college, so it doesn't seem related to the Alz. I do worry, though, that he'll forget Caitlin and the twins. They are definitely in the short term memory category! So far, though, he seems to remember them or does a good job of faking it.
He was really pleased with the twins and thought they were beautiful and delightful and he commented on how happy they seem. I told him that Eric and I make a nice baby and that he and mom didn't do so badly, either!
When the week was up, after spending day after day in the garden digging and clearing away overgrown plants, he talked about coming back again next year. Considering that at the beginning of the week he had been asking my mom when they were going home again every few hours, this was a huge score!
In addition to the gardening, I tried to make him happy while he was here by focusing on food.
My father has a sweet tooth the size of a Mastodon's, so that was no small feat. I made a test birthday cake for the twins and made sure he got a nice hunk of it with ice cream and then sent mom back to my brother's house (Where they were staying.) with half a cake. I brought him a huge slice of cheesecake for dessert after he and mom watched the kids for us while we escaped for a dinner out. I made waffles with raspberry sauce and whipped cream, a peach cobbler and the pièce de résistance: Chocolate Peppermint Bark. I had sent some for Christmas last year and it was such a hit that mom was only able to get a single piece before my father demolished all the rest. I thought if he liked it that much, I should indulge him again, especially since I didn't send any for his birthday in May like I had planned.
He loved it. He remembered it. It made my whole week.
Saying goodbye on Tuesday was tougher than I expected it to be. I think it's because even though he says he plans on living until 93 and then haunting me, I'm never sure if I'm ever going to see him again. His health is as rocky and pitted as his memory. While he talked about coming back next year to do more work in my garden, I'm never certain when I'll next see him or if this time is the last time. It makes little things like saying goodbye heavy and fraught with meaning.
What did I say during this trip? Did I tell him I loved him enough? Did I show him I loved him enough? Did he enjoy himself? Was he happy?
I tried. I really tried. In the end, that has to be good enough.
There might be a next time, another chance to pay careful attention to our relationship, but there may not be. I don't want to spend all of the time between now and when I see him next wishing I'd said something more or done something differently. His Alzheimer's has shown me that we too often take time for granted. Time to make amends or another chance to say what we really mean instead of just doing it right now.
The thing is, we may not have that time. We don't know.
In the end, I can say that I did my part to pay attention and tried to make him feel loved.
Even if he never says it back.
I love you Dad.