Saturday, October 4, 2008

Letter From My Father

I got a letter from my father yesterday. This won’t sound remarkable to a lot of people, but it is to me. I live on the opposite side of America from my father, and since, at 89, he is now profoundly deaf, we can’t talk with one another on the telephone. He also has Alzheimer’s disease, and though he is still in the mild to moderate stage of it, writing a letter is really hard for him. I’ve seen him do it when I’m visiting him: it takes all his concentration. He writes a draft on a legal pad he has in the kitchen drawer, and then he asks my mother to correct it for him. Then he gets his pad of lined stationery and carefully copies it out. I’m his youngest daughter and even now with all his handicaps he wants to be in touch and that means everything to me.

Dear Robin,
Thank you for the letters you write. You don’t know how much I appreciate them. I also appreciate your calls.
[My mother tells him about these.] Please keep writing and calling. I love you.

I gave our neighbor Mickey the picture you sent. I know he appreciates it though he is pretty quiet about it.
[I sent Dad a picture of him with the neighbor’s dog, a friendly yellow Lab called Sunny, taken ten years ago. Sunny is now old and limping, a little bit like my Dad, and he still loves it when Sunny hobbles across the street to visit him.]

I do the same old not much of anything but your mother does so much for me it is great. I know I am loved and I am grateful for it all. I just wish I could do something to show my appreciation. Please write soon.

What my father doesn’t realize is that a letter like this one is all the appreciation I need. For most of his life, my father was a quiet, steady, practical man, not inclined to say “I love you” to anyone but my Mom. He’s an engineer and he saw the world in terms of its straightforward structure. He spent his life working hard. He saved his money. He invested it wisely. He did as my mother asked him. He sent my sister and me to college. He bought few luxuries. He paid his taxes. And he said very little about what he thought.

One of the mixed blessings of his disease is that he now says exactly what he thinks, the minute he thinks it. “What a shame,” he said to me one day as we walked down the driveway getting him some exercise. “What’s a shame?” I said. “That woman there,” (he nodded his head toward a plump seventyish woman walking down the street, getting her exercise). “It’s a shame for a woman to be shaped like that.” It made me smile. He may be eighty nine years old and deaf and losing his reason, but he still notices the shape of a woman!

The disease gives him strange hallucinations, especially first thing in the morning. One morning at breakfast he said to me, “Who is the king’s consort?” I looked up from the newspaper, not sure what was on his mind and slowly pointed at my mother. “Faye? No,” he said. “She’s the queen. I want to know who is the king’s consort?” After I had asked him several questions, I began to see that he had awakened believing he was running a kingdom, and he was trying to figure out who was going to help him do this. I use an improvised sign language with him because of his late-onset deafness, and I put my hands together and tilted my head on them: you were dreaming, my sign said and he understood me. “Dreaming? No, no, I wasn’t dreaming,” and then he went with his caregiver to get dressed. When he came out he asked me again about the kingdom and asked if it was a dream and I nodded. “Oh thank goodness,” he said. “I didn’t know how I was going to manage it. I’ve never run a kingdom and I thought I might have to order some people’s heads to come off.” Then he leaned toward me and became very conspiratorial: “But you know, if I did have to say ‘off with her head’ the first person I’d do it to would be that little girl with the big behind who comes around here to help me.” It was a fairly accurate description of one of his caregivers, who is a really good person, but his description cracked me up completely.

Most of the things he used to enjoy—reading for example—take too much of his concentration now, so when I visit, I try to think of new things he might enjoy doing. One day I took down a jigsaw puzzle from high in my old closet and put the pieces down on the kitchen table. “Let’s do this,” I said and he immediately responded, “Why?” “So we can do something together,” I answered. He nodded and we spent about fifteen minutes in silence finding the first few pieces that went together to get the puzzle started. Finally he looked up at me. “Do you think we could find something else to do together?”

We no longer have to worry that my father will keep his feelings inside. So when he writes the words “I love you” I’m grateful he lived long enough to be able to do this thing that was hard for him most of his life. In our family, we owe him so much. And he’s still trying to figure out what he can do to make us happy.

1 comment:

lflarson said...

I held my finger to the screen. I know your experience, for it is mine. Leslie