It’s feels like running downhill full tilt as a child when you leave the high energy of a Writers & Readers Festival then begin a three day father-sit, only your untrained young legs do not brake you at the bottom of the grassy slope, so you fall with outstretched hands. FOOSH. Into the nettle patch below. Not that my Dad is prickly he is completely mellow in the world that is now his. Dementia is a bastard and I hope I don’t get it. It looks lonely and confusing when you’re on the outside looking in.
I’ve read somewhere that it’s not necessarily hereditary.
However, while I’m caring for my Dad I eat fish twice a day and do more aerobic exercise than I’ve done since I attended Les Mills in a nasty turquoise leotard (which was actually a pair of togs) and attempted a do the grape-vine to Everybody-Dance-Now. Jazzergetics aside getting your heart rate up and over resting 3 times a week along with turmeric, kale, cinnamon and omega 3 are my Alzheimer preventatives du jour.
Dad’s house sits on the edge of a cliff over Leigh harbour bordered by neatly trimmed paspalum grass on a pohutakawa edged reserve. A series of steps and scoria filled boardwalks drop to the left through a steep gulley lush with native bush and chirpy tuis. I do-the-stairs first thing while Dad does his solitary walk to the store to buy the Herald.
I like running incognito, under the calm canopy of karaka leaves. I fold my arms under my boobs by way of a sports bra and run up then walk down. Three sets, increased daily to six by the third day. Back and forth back and forth. When I’m sweaty and barely breathing I dash home, change into my togs and drive to the beach for a salty dip. The cool down is instant and pleasant. Body parts do not numb. I do a Nana swim with my head above water. Breaststroke up and back-kicking on the return. It’s mid-May and winter after all.
Over three days Dad and I fall into an easy silence, reading together on the verandah. I look out regularly towards little Barrier (whose silhouette looks like Queen Victoria in repose if you look closely). Dad focuses on the latest printed murder and mayhem, tutting and sighing at the good bits.
Every morning he sets off on his second walk to check the post box. Sometimes he buys the newspaper again. I tag along uninvited. His is a solitary routine. I slow my pace to his, by folding my hands behind my back, taking staggered steps and bird watching.
Dad shuffles more than six months ago, more stooped, scuffing the toes of his worn out boat shoes, his legs a deep tan his feet sockless. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was the child running after his striding 6ft 2 frame crying, ‘Dad wait for me, wait for me.’ The song Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast ringing in my ears. Even though we’re now 80 and 50 apiece.
Back home we sit in the sun and read some more.
‘I wonder what the poor people are doing today,’ says Dad, staring out to sea.
‘Where did that saying come from?’ I ask, but he doesn’t remember.
Dementia is akin to losing small parts of a person little by little. Though it can be surprising what histories are still sharp. I brought a pile of old photos to jog his memory into conversations about my childhood. I showed too many. I’ll never do it again. The images were obviously confusing. Some sort of test. He did perk up over a photo of a cat. He’s always loved cats.
Afterwards he said, ‘Do you have any grandchildren yet?’
‘Not yet Dad,’ I said. (My children are 11, 13 & 15).
In the evenings as Dad sat on the sofa and read and re-read, I’d prepare dinner. Used to a noisy household I found the void deafening. I didn’t want him to hear me slosh gin into a glass then the grinch of the screw top as I added tonic so I put on some music. In Classical Mood – Reflections seemed apt.
‘Oh it’s Bach in a g-string,’ noted Dad reading, from the cd cover.
Go Bach. I was thrilled to hear him hum occasionally and see him tap his long fingers on the sofa arm. At one point he rotated both ankles like you might on a long distance flight. Sofa dancing.
I finished US author A Homes’, May We Be Forgiven sitting beside Dad on the next glorious 18 degree day. Tuis warbled and solo gannets buzz the cliff tops. In this book Harold the protagonist collects an assortment of people into his family when he’s charged with the care of his brother’s children after the murder of their mother (by their father btw). These people become his knew family as he and the children try to come to grips with their situation. An elderly couple, Cy and Madeline are part of the motley-crew when their daughter abandons them.
On the page Cy and Madeline are easy care, they’re funny and cute with great one liners. You cannot smell their old person smell, nor see their unwashed white hair turn from yellow to dirt brown. If they pee with the door open throughout the day it doesn’t say. Cy no doubt has long spidery hairs growing from his ears and nose and eyebrows but Homes keeps stum on that too. If only being elderly was like that - the sad lonely frustrating bits edited out.
It would have been simpler to let Dad go about his business on his own. To be hurt and offended by not being included. But I’m the grown up now. I butt in. Organize. Make chat.
On the last night I take him out to dinner. Dad loves an occasion. He goes to take a shower and change his shirt.The door of the upstairs bathroom is left ajar. The water runs, the shower door opens. He’s talking to himself again. He can’t find his towel. Clatter of door. Mumble mumble.
‘Ohhh fuck it,’ he says.
It’s the first time I’ve EVER heard my Dad use the f-word. I sit in his cream armchair beside his table with its reading lamp, his little green diary littered with odd random pencil scribbles and his pile of Economists and I smile really hoping it’s not the last.