Monday, December 1, 2008
Visiting my father in California these days almost always involves the unexpected, so I'm not quite sure what I will see when I arrive there this week. In February, when I made my first visit of 2008, everything was just great with the parents as far as I knew. Mom didn't say there was anything wrong with Dad, and my Aunt Ruth was even going to be there, making it a double family get together.
From the moment I walked in the door, it was clear things were not okay. Mom and my aunt were in the kitchen laughing and carrying on but I found my father in the back hallway struggling to get into the kitchen to see me. He was in such great pain that he was hunched over and pushing a chair, holding onto it for support. I knew he had fallen about a week before and hit his head and seeing him now, I was afraid he had also broken his hip.
"Oh he is just so spoiled," my mother said. "I'm the one's that suffering. I have a terrible cold." She was not happy when I called his doctor, set an appointment for the next day, and rushed out to get him a walker. At the doctor we learned Dad had a fractured pelvis. He went immediately into the hospital, and it was there, in the disorienting conditions of a hospital room surrounded by nurses and other strangers that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
"When I woke up this morning," he told me on the first day, "I thought they had remodeled my room."
"You're an engineer Dad. Does this hospital room look like your remodeled bedroom to you?"
"No. No it doesn't now. But I just thought ... " Over the three days he was in the hospital he constantly asked for my mother, always worried that she wouldn't know where to find him. I spent a lot of time assuring him. He worried about remembering his phone number--and I went over it lots of times with him, always finding him comforted when he learned he could still recite it from memory.
I was so worried about him I spent one whole day at his bedside, talking with him. Near the end of that day he told me he was going to take a nap and--ever the polite gentleman from Birmingham, Alabama--he asked me if I minded. No, no, I said. I have to go home and have dinner with Mom. He put his head back on his pillow and looked at me before he closed his eyes:
"You know, Robin, I think this is the first day we've spent together in, I don't know, forever," and then he smiled a little. "It was nice," and then he went to sleep.
Mom didn't seem to want to visit Dad in the hospital. We think this was because she couldn't accept the idea that he was ill and being in denial helped her get through it.
"Your father is doing better because he's made up his mind," she has told both my sister and me recently, much to our mutual dismay. "I wish he'd make up his mind not to have dementia," I said under my breath, but I don't think my mother heard me.
Denial is a defense mechanism. In fact, at a Thanksgiving gathering, my sister heard a story from a family friend that illustrated this. The friend was a fireman who once went on a call to the home of an elderly couple. The woman was dusting when they arrived and said her husband had fainted in his chair.
"I hope he'll be all right. We have to leave to visit our grandchildren in half an hour," she said. But the fireman found that the old man in the chair was dead, and had been for some time.
"He must be able to travel", said the old woman, with some impatience. "We really do have to go."
But the old man was gone already. It must have been a shock. It was probably the first time in many years the old man had gone anywhere ... without first checking with his wife.