Memory Lost and Memory Gained
When I stop by my parent’s house to pick up my Dad for church on Sundays, I always greet him by saying, “Hi, Dad!”
And he always says, “Hi, honey!”
I don’t let this simple greeting fool me though. I know perfectly well he has no idea who I am. In his world, I am not his daughter and have become, instead, the nice lady who helps him go to church. And yet, for some reason, it doesn’t seem odd to him that a stranger calls him, “Dad.”
As we drive to church, we chat—usually the same conversation, one that starts with, “Where were you born?”
I answer, “East Orange, New Jersey.”
He says, “Really, that’s where we’re from!”
And so the conversation goes.
We drive the exact same route each time. Routine helps him remember things. Or at least I can hope. And we always pass the intersection of 64th St. and Shea Blvd. in North Scottsdale. One Sunday he pointed north of the intersection, and said, “That’s where our first house in Arizona is, just right up there on Cholla Street.”
How exciting! I’d seen the old house, and it didn’t look much different than it had when I was a kid. I was certain that if I showed it to him, it would help his memory. Maybe, just maybe, he would even remember me.
“Really!” I said. “Would you like to see it again? We can drive past it right after Mass!”
“Um…ok,” he answered. His tentativeness only added fire to my enthusiasm. I could barely wait for Mass to be over.
As we drove back after Mass, Dad talked the whole time about the house. In fragmented sentences, missing all kinds of verbs, he managed to tell me about how he and my Mom built it, how he had planted lots of trees, built a corral and bought two horses for the family to ride. He remembered both horses, Penny Patch and Big Red. He even described how Big Red would buck off everyone except my mother. And me. Except he didn’t remember that second part.
We reached the intersection of 64th St. and Shea Blvd and turned north, then right on Cholla. A few houses down, I stopped and said, “Look, there it is!”
Dad looked at me, puzzled.
I went on, “See, Dad! See the same u-shaped windows, the same u-shaped driveway, even, the same creosote bushes—only they’re much bigger now! And see, all the trees in the back! Look how tall that eucalyptus you planted is now!”
He looked at me again, even more puzzled, and said, “How do you know all that?”
I’ve learned not to embarrass him by pointing out what he doesn’t remember. If I do, he only clams up. If I let him think his memory is normal, he oddly remembers more—at least sometimes he does. So, I said, “Well…you told me all about it.”
“Oh,” he said.
But my ploy didn’t work. We sat in the car and I continued to point out memories, but he could not connect the house in front of us with the house he built with my Mom. The house where I learned how to ride Big Red so he wouldn’t buck me off like he did everyone else. The house that he and my Mom rebuilt after a devastating tornado. The house where we held a party for me and all my friends when we graduated from high school, my parents serving champagne in a nod to our budding adulthood.
We stared at the house for a while longer, then he said, “We should get home. Sue is waiting for me.”
I turned my truck around, and we headed on our way. We were both quiet for some time, then he said, “I have a job now.”
I felt so weary then. I was still lost in the sadness of the memory of our old house, and I didn’t think I had the emotional energy to hear about something else he wasn’t going to remember.
Nonetheless, I replied, “What do you do?”
“I go to a place where there are a lot of people who aren’t as capable as they once were.”
I note how he says all this in a complete and complex sentence. This is big.
“And they need a lot of help,” he continued. “So, I help them.”
“How do you help them, Dad?”
“Well, I help them play cards. They don’t always remember the rules and they do silly things. So, I say, ‘Joe, you can’t do that.’ And Joe laughs and does what I tell him. And sometimes I help walk them to places in the center. Like the TV room when it’s movie time. It’s good work, and it’s rewarding work. And although I don’t get paid for this work, I’m glad that I can do this for them. It’s important work, even more important than what I once did as a CEO.”
“That’s wonderful, Dad. Really, that’s really wonderful. You’re right, it is important work and I’m glad you get to do this, too.”
And I am glad. Beyond glad. Because one of the many blessings of my dad’s new life has been the John C. Lincoln Adult Day Health Care Center. I’m not quite sure who said what to who and how it all came about, but somehow the people at this center have given my Dad purpose. The kind of purpose we all need: Work that makes us feel like we’re moving the world forward.
His life may seem sad to others—so many memories and abilities lost forever—but to my father, his life is rich in the memories he still holds and in the new memories he gains each day, not the least of which is the nice lady who helps him go to church on Sunday.
And my life is richer for experiencing his new life with him.
dementia brain injury my father Dad family Catholicism daily life