A Presbyterian since 1969—when he converted from Catholicism in order to join a church with my Mom—my Dad suddenly decided in 2008 that he wanted to go back to the Roman Catholic Church. The only Catholic left in both our immediate and extended families, he looked to me, his eldest daughter, for help.
It was a warm September afternoon when we had our first conversation while enjoying lunch on the sunny patio of an Italian restaurant in Paradise Valley.
I said, “Have you asked Mom?”
“You better ask her, Dad. I think that’s a conversation you should have with Mom, not me.”
Meaning: This wasn’t a conversation I particularly wanted to have with my mother. I could only imagine how she might feel about her husband going back to the Catholic Church.
As adamant as he had been about his conversion to the Presbyterian Church, Dad became equally adamant about going back to the Catholic Church. Perhaps because his mother was Catholic. Perhaps because he had been an altar boy and had strong memories of the Catholic Church—memories he thought he might be able to hold onto. I didn’t really understand why.
But for many months, every time I saw him, and as soon as my mother was out of earshot, he asked if I would take him. And I kept answering, “Have you talked to Mom, yet?”
In July of this past summer, my Mom and I concluded we needed to take stronger measures to slow down my Dad’s decline. I told her about his request to go back to the Catholic Church. As we talked more about it, we agreed that going to the Catholic Church—rich in ritual and repetitive activity and 2,000 years of tradition—might help his motor ability and his memory. And he wanted it so badly, it seemed wrong to say no.
Most Sundays since then, I drive to my parent’s house, pick my Dad up and bring him to 10:30 Mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Community in Scottsdale, where my son and I have been parishioners since 1996.
We Catholics joke about our rituals—how being Catholic is like riding a bike; you never forget when to sit, or stand, or kneel, or how to make the sign of the cross. But Dad can’t remember any of the rituals from one week to the next. So, I quietly show him what to do and he repeats after me. Otherwise, he looks and acts normal to me and to everyone else in the congregation.
And since I’ve been going to our church for 14 years, and have been involved in nearly every ministry, a lot of people know me and want to meet my dad. They start conversations with him as though he were a regular dad. He smiles his charming smile and shakes their hand and laughs at their jokes—and most walk away having no idea that he has dementia.
One Sunday in November, I picked him up, we climbed into my truck, snapped in our seat belts and headed down the driveway. As soon as we reached the road, he said, “So, where were you born?”
My heart stopped.
Minutes later, or so it seemed, I answered, “East Orange, New Jersey.”
He said, “Really! That’s where we’re from. Small world!”
I said, “Really! Where in East Orange?”
And he launched into the history of his life in New Jersey. He flashed his charming smile at me as he talked about meeting my Mom in high school and wooing her in college, having his first daughter (that would be me) at a Catholic hospital in Montclair, New Jersey, living in a tiny apartment in East Orange, then moving to a house in Cedar Grove and having more children (my siblings).
A few weeks before, my sister-in-law shared with me that my Dad had told her all about the nice lady who helps him go to church on Sunday. I understood how he might not remember who I was when I wasn't in the room. It never dawned on me that he could no longer connect that same nice lady with his eldest daughter sitting right next to him in her truck.
But on this cool November morning, I listened to every word my Dad said and interjected questions at appropriate moments as though I were a stranger making conversation with the nice gentleman who I helped go to church every Sunday. And throughout our conversation, my mind could not stop churning around what would become my new world view—my Dad has absolutely no idea who I am.
dementia brain injury my father Dad family Catholicism daily life