My Father had Dementia, and I am My Father’s Son: The legacy of a Disease
I sat in a chair across from the doctor and talked about my memory. He was an older man from Pakistan with a severe gaze that sized you up in an unsettling way.
We were meeting for the first time. I had just returned from living abroad and needed a new personal physician. One day, I drove past his office, which is located near my house, and wrote down his name.
Admittedly, this is not the best way to find decent medical care but there I was, in that chair, talking about things I could remember, and things I couldn’t.
The doctor didn’t say much, but he listened intently, his fingertips cupping the bridge of his nose. He spoke with an accent I’d heard so many times before.
I told him I’d done some reporting in Pakistan, as if that would make a difference in any course of action he might prescribe, but I was a bit nervous and when I get that way, I find myself talking. Maybe I was looking for some common ground, not that I really needed any.
“My father has dementia,” I told him. “And I am my father’s son.”
Was there anything I should be looking for? Signs I might be taking the same path?
To be honest, my memory isn’t really a problem — not yet. Things pop in and out of my head like partygoers in my living room. Sometimes the names, places and numbers leave and don’t come back; other times I can convince them to return, proud of myself.
This whole memory business concerned me because I was looking into the future, like the son of an alcoholic assessing his own drinking habits. Would the coming years be preordained with gradual memory loss?
The doctor suggested I limit my alcohol intake. He was presumably a Muslim, so it might be easy for him, but I like wine and indulge in a glass at home each night, switching to a few beers when I am out socially.
I don’t consider myself a problem drinker and told him that I liked my drinking just where it was, that I didn’t want to rob the pleasures of today to pay for the uncertainties of tomorrow.
I’m not sure he liked my answer.
In any event, he didn’t think my faculties were in any imminent danger.
“Come back,” he said, “when you start leaving your keys in the oven.”
He did suggest a few ways to preserve my mindfulness. Learn a new language, he said, the harder the better. And don’t drive the same roads every day; vary your route.
When I left, I took a different way home, deciding I was no longer going to live my life on auto-pilot. But I still topped off the day with a nice glass of Napa Valley red.
My father, as I recall, began losing his memory when he was in his 80s.
By then, he and my mother lived in northern Florida and one evening he drove the car down to the Piggly Wiggly supermarket to pick up a few things.
When he walked out of the store, he faced a terrible realization: he couldn’t remember where he lived, where he’d come from or how to get back.
He didn’t panic. He got on Route 200 that runs southwest of Ocala and he just drove. He never said how long, but eventually he passed a landmark that recalibrated his mind and he found his way home.
Now he was scared. He told my mother he was never driving again. And he didn’t.
We took him for tests at the University of Florida at Gainesville and the doctors reported that he’d suffered a series of mini strokes, or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs).
“Was he a candidate for Alzheimers?” my mother asked.
The doctors didn’t know. Some patients contracted dementia and never went on to suffer full-blown Alzheimers, while others did, in the same way that not everyone who contracted HIV eventually got AIDS. They needed to do more research.
That bit of news didn’t necessarily make my father feel any better. He leaned on my mother in a new way. Suddenly, she was the one who paid the bills and balanced the check book, and did all the little things that my father once took pride in doing.
A lifelong reader, my father also stopped picking up books. He’d lose his place, he said, forgot what he’d already read. I encouraged him to read short stories that he could finish in one sitting and not worry about picking up any narrative thread.
But the passion was gone.
My father was never a wholeheartedly social man; he left that chore to my mother. But eventually he stopped going out to meet with his old pals over coffee or a few beers.
He never said as much, but my father was an awfully proud man and I think he was afraid he’d forget the name of an friend or begin to repeat himself.
Years before, my father had taught me a trick about remembering the name of someone new you might meet at a party or on the job.
“What did you say your name was, again” he’d ask.
The person would dutifully repeat their first name.
“No, I know that,” my father would bluster. “I mean your last name.”
It worked well for him and I will admit to using the same ploy now and again.
I’m not proud of this, but I recall once taking advantage of my Dad’s memory predicament.
Whenever I visited my parents in Florida, we always ate at this authentic pizza place called Little Joeys. One night, we made plans but my mother wasn’t feeling well.
I said we’d bring her something home and went to the living room to get my father.
“Where’s your mother?” he asked.
“She’s not feeling well,” I said. “We’ll bring her back a salad.”
“Well, if your mother isn’t going, I’m not going either.”
I wanted that pizza and I wanted my Dad to take a ride with me.
I waited 15 minutes, then came back to the living room.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“Where are we going?”
“You said you wanted to go to Little Joeys.”
And so we went, sans my mother, and the pizza was good.
A few years after his diagnosis, my mother was killed in a tragic car crash. My father was forced to sell the house and live, successively, with three of my five sisters.
His condition deteriorated and he began to repeat his questions. I never tired of answering, of course, always cheerfully providing the response as if it was the first time he’d asked.
Still, he got depressed over his failure at the art of remembering. I remember saying that long-term memory was a deep pocket where you didn’t readily lose things, and my Dad could always remember the past.
Short-term recollection, however, is more like a shallow pocket from which things fall out all the time.
“Who cares,” I said, “if you can’t remember what you had for lunch?”
But my father did care, right up until the day he died.
Now he’s gone and I am still my father’s son.
I don’t worry, really, not yet.
With no children, there won’t be a younger generation to patiently answer my repeat questions.
I’ll continue to read until, like my father, books become puzzles and mazes, not escapes.
And I will live each day for what it is, never assuming, holding onto the good, taking new routes home to enjoy that evening glass of red wine.
And I will keep those car keys out of the oven, for as long as I possibly can.
John M.Glionna is a writer and freelance journalist based in Sin City, Nevada. His website is johnglionna.com.