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2010/02/19

My Valentine: 2010

On Valentine’s Day I met my folks for breakfast at our usual Sunday spot. Near the end of the meal my Mom asked me if I would mind taking Dad off her hands for a few hours while she ran some errands. I said, sure, no problem. I didn’t really have anything planned for the day, other than spending time with my dogs, so a few hours with my Dad wouldn’t be displacing any activity of value.

My dad is 75 years old and has Alzheimer’s. He’s a shadow of his former self; and something of a stranger to me now. I know that I’m a stranger to him. He frequently has no idea who I am. My Mom fairs a bit better on the recognition front, though on occasion he tells me she is “just that nice lady that takes care of me”. It breaks her heart to hear it. This disease has a tendency to do that – break hearts.

Though a handful at times - my Dad is fairly easy to manage. It’s important that he remain in somewhat familiar surroundings. We have to make sure that when eating there is not too much noise and that the table is cleared of extraneous items. Clutter, along with patterns on the table cloth or place mat or more than three items of food on his plate can cause him to become distracted. He fails to comprehend that the patterns are part of the cloth. He thinks he can physically pick them up, and would spend hours trying to do so if we did not intercede. Too many food choices cause him to freeze up; unable to decide what to eat first; he would end up eating nothing. There was a time when television held his attention – especially Westerns. But now the only thing he seems to enjoy is Tom and Jerry cartoons. Coloring was also a favorite activity, but that has gone by the wayside as well, though he still likes collecting and arranging the crayons.

In fact, collecting things seems to be one of his favorite activities, especially at stores and other people’s houses. He’s become a bit of a shoplifter, so when we do venture into a store with him we have to be on guard constantly. That’s why I suggest that we go to the Dollar Store. It’s one of the safest places to take him. He can choose anything he wants and it only cost a buck. “Dollar Store?” he echoes back, like a wizened owl. “We can buy candy there.” I explain. That registers. His sweet tooth is always an active presence, a promise to satisfy it a great motivator. I also have an ulterior motive: it’s Valentine’s Day and this will give him an opportunity to pick out a card for my Mom along with some snacks.

After having spent a good two hours at the restaurant (it takes my Dad a long time to eat these days – even with us cutting up his food for him), we make our way to my car. The snow banks are quite high and there is no way for me to safely guide my Dad to the passenger side of the vehicle, so I place him in the backseat. “You can pretend you’re taking a Taxi.” No response. He dutifully sits where I tell him. On the way to the store I talk to him over my shoulder. He wants to know where we’re going. He is also worried about where “Mom” is. I do my best to ease his mind. These are questions and answers that will be repeated many times during the few hours.

We arrive at that store and the little kid in my Dad kicks in. This is reminiscent of the first time I noticed that there was something ‘wrong’ with my Dad. We were at a Walgreens. It was during the horrible winter of 1996 – my first since returning to Minnesota from California. That winter, trips to Walgreens became something I did with my parents. As we waited for prescriptions to be filled, we would each take a flyer from the front of the store and search the store’s aisles for coupon items. I remember that my Dad had this weird, uncharacteristic excitement in his voice as we shopped and that he kept moving along aside me, standing far too close for my comfort. It was like shopping with an awkward adolescent whose social skills are not fully developed. I kept looking at him with disbelief, my dismay not registering at all.

Several years later, when the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was handed down, my mind crept back to that time, along with a litany of other odd occurrences: minor car accidents, an inability to follow even a short list of spoken directions, etc., and it began to make sense Though a whole year would pass before I began to accept the diagnosis as correct and know that my Dad wasn’t just pulling the wool over our eyes. By that time his behavior had simply become too inexplicable for it to be anything else. For example, he would put on layers and layers and layers of clothing before going for a walk outside on the hottest days of summer. It was his version of running away from home, I guess. On time he went missing and ended up at the woman’s prison in Shakopee. A guard there was kind enough to call the police, who escorted him home. The police, having been notified earlier by my Mom, escorted him home. My Mom said that he arrived home acting as if a police escort was a totally normal occurrence, just another day in the neighborhood.

Such incidents are the reason that when the house across the street from me came up for sale in 2008 I decided it was the perfect home for my parents. It took some convincing, but finally my Mom agreed. My Dad was becoming too much for her to look after by herself. She realized she needed help. I spent the latter half of that winter and most of the spring rehabbing it with the help of others. We spent the summer emptying my parents’ house in Shakopee. Years and years of ‘collecting’ made it a pretty overwhelming task. It was a very emotional time for my Mom, having to let go of so much, but she managed admirably. The move went pretty smoothly, though for many months after my Dad would ask anyone within earshot when was it he got to go home. He would also talk about a house up north he owned and a farm he needed to get to. My parent’s did have a cabin on a lake at the time, but the farm he was speaking of was that of his childhood. It no longer existed, hadn’t for years – except in memory and in his mind.

I do my best to spend time with my parents. Yes, I have siblings, but they many live too far away to be a weekly presence in my parents’ lives. Two of my sisters manage to visit once a month and an older brother manages to so once a year. My other sister is too involved in her own trials and has no interest in being involved. She has not seen my parents for three and a half years. If she showed up today my Dad wouldn’t have any idea who she is. It’s a strange turn of events. For years and years I was the black sheep of the family; funny how things change. Now, my folks come over to my house for dinner at least once a week. When it comes time to leave, my Dad will head out my front gate looking for his car, though he hasn’t driven for years. He still doesn’t get that he lives across the street. We don’t push it, except to reassure him.

We have to watch him constantly. Shortly after moving into their new house, with its fenced in yard and locked gates, my Dad got out via the garage door. My Mom called me, frantic, as she and a friend of mine searched the neighborhood. A half hour later, my Mom received a phone call from their new next door neighbor. He had discovered my Dad sitting at his kitchen table. My Dad had walked in, hung up his cap and coat and sat down. When the neighbor asked what he was doing, my Dad just replied, “Waiting.” We’re more careful now. He has a key to the house, but that is all. He had to give up his driving privileges a few years back and he has never had keys to the garage or the locked gates. Sometimes I look across the street and catch him standing at the front gate fishing through his pockets for keys and, not finding any that fit, taking the lock and yanking on it furiously. He hates those locks.

But he loves the Dollar Store. And riding in the car – which I decide will be our next activity, after he chooses a card.

I steer him over to a rack of Valentine’s Day cards, explaining who it is he needs to get a card for. I pick up a card and he says, “Yep, that one.” Fortunately it’s a very nice card with a verse about thanking the loved one for all the things they do for them. “Okay, let’s find some candy to go with it.” This eats up the next half hour, as the merits of various snack cakes, candies and chips are considered and debated. In the end he chooses 14 different items, though I suspect very few of them will be of interest to my Mom. We pay for our purchases and leave the store, but not before Dad begins to pick up loose price tags and other debris that litters the sales floor. He views such items as found treasures and it frequently takes a good deal to convince him otherwise. So usually we just let him put the stuff in his shirt pockets where it will reside until bedtime when my Mom undresses him and removes the items – tissues, napkins, pencils, pens, paper clips, price tags, ketchup and sugar packets and the like. I’ve told my Mom that she should start a website called “_________’s Pockets”, featuring a digital photo of the things she finds in his pockets on a nightly basis. Due to his proclivity for collecting things, I have to watch him closely when he comes to my house. I have a small collection of Buddhas and another of small glass frogs. Many times my Mom will call me once they are home to let me know that one or several of the items in these collections has made its way across the street. We also have to be careful with dog treats. Several times I’ve caught my Dad nonchalantly munching on something that wasn’t intended for human consumption. Sometimes I catch him in time, but you can’t win them all.

In the car, after we’ve paid for our stuff, I try to get my Dad to actually sign the card. Easier said then done. He still recognizes words, but he rarely makes sense of them or relates them to their meaning. Even his own name is a stranger to him now. I have to slowly spell it out, letter by letter. He still writes cursively, but none of the letters connect, each one suspended at a different angle as they float haphazardly near the bottom of the card. I write my Mom’s name at the top of the card and on the outside of the envelope and call it a day. I do this, not because I think she’ll believe for a second that he did it on his own, but because it will brighten her day just a bit. I also know that when she asks if he picked out the card himself, I will lie and say “yes”. In a way he did. And such a tiny white lie isn’t going to hurt anyone. My Mom deserves a valentine from her husband.

Having taken care of our shopping, we make our way along Wirth Parkway. Ejecting the dance music CD that has been playing in my car all week, I opt for NPR and some nice relaxing classical sounds. It’s not my Dad’s taste in music (he prefers classic country), but he doesn’t complain. It makes for a rather poignant soundtrack. It’s a beautiful, sunny day with lots of people out cross country skiing, tubing and such. I point out the people, dogs and the lakes as we move slowly along the winding road, but Dad seems interested only in his hands which lie lifelessly in his lap. For some reason this moves me; he seems so small, so shrunken in that passenger seat. All I want to do is make him feel safe. With my right hand I cover both of his in a gesture of comfort. It’s a tender moment. And not one that I think I would ever had with my Dad, if it were not for his condition; small consolation, but consolation none the less. True in more ways than one.

For now, all we can do is take things a day at a time. I try not to look too far into the future. Neither does my Mom. We’ve both done the research; we know what’s to come. For now, trips to the Dollar Store, rides in the car, meals out – they’re all still possible, so we take advantage of them. These small events link us back to life as it once was, before the heavy shadow of Alzheimer’s overtook the light in my father’s eyes.

He’s a good man; worked hard all his life. Provided the best he could. We will make what remains as comfortable for him for as long as we are able. I worry about my Mom: caring for one so dependent is a daunting task, but she claims she’s coping. That’s why I’m here: to offer a little relief from time to time.

After another 40 minutes have passed I steer the car toward home. “Ready to go home?” I ask. “Home?” he echoes, the word not having any connotation.

Yes, home. That safe place. Who knows? Maybe Tom and Jerry’s on.

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