Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Power of Yes

It's getting harder to make jokes about my dad's Alzheimer's these days.
It's never really been funny. But we manage, as we do with most of life's heartbreaks, to find the funnier sides to it.

We particularly like the way he throws his money around. After years of being thrifty guy, he's got his wallet out every chance he gets, offering to buy my kids things they want but don't need, or to pay for my groceries as if I were still in college.

Or the quirky things he does. Like the time we went walking on the Equinox trails and he complained and complained about his underpants "feeling strange" until finally I made him step off the trail and drop trou, praying no one would come along and find us-- an old man with his pants down and a younger woman trying to straighten out his underwear. After having ignored his complaints for half a mile, like I would a toddler, I discovered his was not an idle complaint. He had on briefs and boxers together.

And the boxers  had somehow ended up around his knees.

Or the things he writes down on scrap paper but can't explain. Like  "intelligence + personality= important."

Or things he says. Like in the car in Maine just recently, when he responded to some upsetting news I was telling him by saying, "That's a bunch of birdshit!"

Then, in a moment of great clarity, he said, "I don't think I've ever said that before, have I? That's not what people say. A bunch of birdshit?" And I said, "No, Dad. I've never heard it before. I think you just made up your own brilliant expression."

Bird shit! It doesn't necessarily stink, but it's still super annoying. 

We have so many laughs throughout the day with my dad. We laugh with him. But we're often laughing at him, and he seems to know that, but he never gets upset. My dad has always been a fan of laughter. He likes to make people laugh.

But, just lately, the humorous side of things is harder to spot. He seems so.... vulnerable. And, I'm guessing, he feels vulnerable too. The other day he said something about being a baby. "But you're not a baby anymore," I said. And he said, "Yes, but I'm just as damageable."

Telling him where we're going, twenty times along the way, isn't what gets to me. What gets to me is seeing him, once an incredibly alert man, a conversationalist, at a loss for what to say because he can't follow the conversation. He's lost the thread. He's forgotten what we're conversing about.

And what gets to me, is seeing this once perpetually busy, restless man at a loss as to what to do next. This man who was never caught without a plan. Never to be accused of idleness. Never under remotest threat of gathering moss on any of his many surfaces. A moving target, his motion was his sanity. As long as he kept moving, doing, doing doing, he was safe from whatever it was he was hiding from.

And having heard the distress in his voice the day I stupidly asked him what his most powerful childhood memory was so I could write it in his grandfather book and one day give his memories to Esther and Isla, and he started telling me the story of his father's suicide when my dad was only five, and recounted a vivid memory of his mother howling and pacing on the sleeping porch, I can only imagine that running, constant forward motion, is much more preferable to ever, ever going back there. 

But now the movement has stopped. Lurched to a halt, unsettling all that was not bolted down with the abruptness of the transition. Yet it's not my father who is unsettled, it's us who love him. It's us who look at him and see the same man as always, yet do not recognize the docile aimlessness, the lack of certainty in his eyes. The idleness.

Yet his brain is not idle. He remembers so much-- like the Boy Scout law, which he recites at least once each and every time I see him.
"A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly,
courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty,
brave, clean, and reverent."

He gets a big kick out of the clean part. I'll have to ask him, now that I've just Googled it, if he remembers the Scout's Promise as well.
"On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight."

And, ever since he was in the hospital with five broken ribs, sustained last winter while cross country skiing, and they kept him on morphine for several days, he has developed a new quirk. You might call it a verbal tic.

And, so fitting with who my father has become, the master of gratitude, who feels blessed for  everything that comes his way, with the exception, perhaps, of rainy days,  this tic involves chanting the word "yes" as he makes his way through his day.

He sometimes says it with every step he takes, like a child learning to walk, "Yes, yes, yes, yes."
He says it when he's fixing himself breakfast, all alone in the kitchen. "Yes," he says, as he takes the milk carton out of the ice box. "Yes," he says again as he fishes a spoon out of the drawer. "Yes," he says when he reaches for a bowl in the cupboard.

And when he's about to do something tricky, like step across the boardwalks around Equinox Pond, or climb over a stone wall on his property in the woods. "Yes. Yes. Yes." he chants, as if the very word is what propels him. The word is his crutch. His cane. His gas pedal. His teddy bear. His pacifier.

That he's chosen this word, out of all the words in the world, fascinates me. As annoying as it is, mostly in its repetition and its foreshadowing of mental instability, it's brilliant really.

I found myself imitating him the other day, all by myself. It was soothing to say. Yes. Over and over, not letting any other thought, or word, enter your mind or cross your lips. You can't say yes without smiling. Whereas "no," forces the mouth into what feels and looks like the beginning of a frown.

Try it:

"Maybe, maybe, maybe" this is all going to be okay.


Was Living Down Under said...

Just this morning on the drive in to work we were talking about saying yes before no. It doesn't shut down a conversation the way no does. My instinct is to say no first and then think about it. So much better to say yes or maybe before saying no.

This post, as always, is beautifully written. To watch someone you love deteriorate before your eyes is heartbreaking.

We're getting to one year milestones now and I can't help looking for the emails that were sent out around that time - "Dad's health bulletin #1". I didn't want to make this about me, but you talking about your dad made me think about mine. Though they were not afflicted with the same ailments, I can relate.

Rowena Brooks said...

Oh, this is so beautiful. My heart aches with so many different emotions when I read what you write about your father. I never had a father, and while it doesn't really affect me in my life in general, you make me wish I did.

I love your writing. It is beautiful.

Anna said...

Betsy - This is so beautiful, so moving, wrenching, and perfect. I am so sorry for what you all are going through. The word 'yes'. Really wonderful he has chosen that. Am sure you know the Joyce passage. Anyway, thanks for writing this. Anna

Sue said...

I live on another continent from my aged parents (77 and 74), and the knowledge that I will not be with them when their health and possibly mind fail is one of my heaviest burdens.

Your love and learning from your father is admirable and moving to read. Sue

Anonymous said...

This is so beautiful that it makes me envy you for the experience.... The poetry, despite the terror, the poetry of what you're living is astounding..... You will have so many memories af this part of the path.... Nancy

Anonymous said...

I have been patiently waiting for an update on this blog and the wait has been so worth it. Beautifully written and very moving. I was holding my breath that everything was all right with you and your family knowing that the silence speaks for itself. I can only imagine how difficult this would be -- I am also very close to my father--yet you manage to see some eloquence and beauty in your father's declining health. That is rare gift--thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I actually read an Alzheimer blog by a doctor with the diagnosis
I find it is a good ressource even if our family is not affected. He is happier since his diagnosis, which in a way gives me some comfort when I think of my developmentally delayed students.

Anonymous said...

My mother wasn't diagnosed with alzheimer but senility. It was 7 long years. Your story is lovely and made me cry. My mom was a mean senile person at first, so I thought she "had gone nuts", but she was only mean for about 2 years. Then she became this docile, 1/2 minded person. Before all this, she was, to me, the most incredible person, my best friend, my mom. Well, in my mind, she is the most wonderful person, but those last years were very hard. I guess no matter what someone has done in their life, no one deserves this. But my mom, when she was young had traveled all the continents of the earth! She lived in so many countries and took so many risks. And there she was, old, wrinkled, liver spots, weak, sitting in a sun room in our house in a small town in the US, babbling and not remembering much of anything. She always knew who I was though, and that gave me comfort.

Anonymous said...

You should submit this to the Alzheimer's Assn. They could post your beautiful essay, which would boost the morale of other family caregivers like us.

Iron Rider said...

Yes. yes. yes.

Christine said...

"Intelligence plus character: that is the goal of a true education."-Martin Luther King

Maybe that's what he meant?

Beautifully written, btw.

Seamingly Sarah said...

What insightful moments and thoughts. I can't imagine going through what you are now approaching and dealing with, yet you make it sound beautiful and inspiring. I was just commenting to my mother the other day that we were lucky my recently passed grandma never developed dementia or Alzheimer's. My prayers are with you and your family.

mooserbeans said...

This was so beautiful. Not to hijack your story, but I just lost my mother this week. I so understand the pain and frustration of watching someone you love slowly deteriorate. I know you are, but cherish every moment.

Jlynn said...

My dad suffers from Alzheimer's and his brother recently passes after a long battle with it, a losing battle always. My Aunt told me to her it was was worse than cancer as there was never any hope for him to get better. All she could do is become a care taker to her husband who did not even recognize her and would ask for her. He would have conversations and laugh with what he told her was his brother Henery, he died ten years ago.

As you probably do I hust not just for me but for my kids that will not know the man I knew. They are young only two and four so what they will remember wont be much in comparison. He is not very sociable any more unless it is one on one talk. He just sits and watches.

I want to make a grandfather book now. I never had grandparents and know very little about them.

Wen Forester said...

Have missed reading your blog lately.
Thank you for writing this.. heartbreaking and beautiful.

Anonymous said...

My father has "mild" dementia. Like you, it is hard watching a once very busy man sit in his chair for so many hours each day. As another poster wrote, it is hard to know that my children will never know the man that my dad was. They will just remember the funny man who repeated the same things over and over.

Anonymous said...

I have only just this month accepted the fact that my father is in the first stages of early onset Alzheimer's. He just turned sixty. It is so very hard to accept and give up hope that maybe he wouldn't develop it. His is the rare genetic type, which I might develop too. Thank you for this post! He himself is very patient with and humble about his condition which does make it easier to bear. It is so hard to see the mental degeneration of our intellectual fathers!