… the door opened revealing a 79 year old man in green t shirt and khaki shorts draped around inadequate legs and creaking knees. Time has been indifferent, neither cruel or kind, to my father. Time chips away at the days, sneaking in an extra wrinkle here and there and slowly sapping our strength as it passes. But time has added another wrinkle by starting to steal my father’s memories. Stroke induced dementia, is the label the experts have given it. “Come in, son. I’ve only just got up.” I stepped through the doorway ignoring Duke the springy black and white chihuahua jumping up and down to groin height next to me on the carpet.
The script I had mentally prepared fell away like cigarette ash. The cryptic messages over the past weeks that I had assembled like jigsaw pieces to form a picture of reality bore no relation to the experience of the here and now. Apart from the absence of my step mother, It was as if nothing had changed over the five months or so since I was here.
Settling into the yielding sofa next to the window, I was conscious of a new chapter as the page turned in the book of life. Glee was 2000 miles away and, after a day in the hands of civil transportation and a night in a hire car, an unwritten week was ahead of us. Coffee had freshly percolated and I accepted the cup with both hands, like a receiving of a peace offering between tribal chiefs. A proud man is Doug, frustrated by the invisible thief of dementia. He still functions and recalls many old memories, some of which are best forgotten, but things like where car keys are put down, how to print out a document or why he got up to go to the kitchen aren’t commonly retained.
The absence of Michele meant we could talk freely without moderation if we wished but we soon relaxed into periods of comfortable silence.
“Why has Michele fallen out with me?” I asked.
“She thinks you’re a freeloader.” he said.
It didn’t feel true but, still, it crept into my subconscious for later processing anyway.
I smiled as I thought about it. Its probably why she left with his car, taking his credit card and cheque book with her.
Doug’s always been a generous man and always insists on picking up the tab. My mother says he always had plenty of friends when he was on leave from the merchant navy – until his money was spent.
This week would be different. He had been left emasculated in a land where money means almost everything to almost everyone. He was a modern day knight stripped of his sword he had been disarmed and left defenceless.
I carried the sword now; we had money and a car and I was in the driving seat. As a guest, I had always felt like the passenger. Today was a feeling of freedom and possibility. The world was our oyster and to celebrate, we went for lunch and margaritas at the local favourite, Playa Azul Oyster Bar.
And so the week went on in gentle conversation and shared space and time.
Doug doesn’t socialise too often these days, so I organised a few meetings with a few of his life-long friends. He said he enjoyed these outings but he prefers to stay at home, these days, either alone or with Michele.
To me he looked unhappy with either situation and sometimes drifts away from social engagement with his mind wandering out of the present and into the past or future. Dementia seems to bring with it depression and frustration.
I couldn’t help thinking that his condition could only worsen so I was glad I didn’t take the recent messages and phone calls to not visit literally. If I hadn’t have come, I might have regretted it for the rest of my life.
Jaco, a diver in St Maarten, shared his story of visiting his father, leaving nothing unsaid or undone before passing away shortly after. He was so glad that he thought about it while his own father was still around. Jaco reminded me that we only get one shot. There is no guarantee that any one of us will wake up tomorrow… likely, but still no guarantee. Nothing we value should be put off if it can be done today. There is no going back…
Whatever happens today, I will remember to follow my heart and have no regrets.
Stirring the crushed ice with a straw into his margarita, Doug asks “What do we have to do to be happy, son?”
“Happiness is not a doing, it is a being.” I replied “You take it with you, it’s part of the journey …” and I thought about it some more… later wishing I had been quick enough to follow it up before the moment had passed.
The arrival of something new sometimes stimulates happiness and we mistake whatever that ‘new thing’ is as the source. The source is actually the appreciation that is stimulated from that ‘new thing.’ When the appreciation wears off, the feeling of happiness goes with it. The route to happiness is in gratitude: an appreciation of all that is and all that you have today. It must be harder to be grateful when your memories are slipping away: having the record of your personal life slowly erased… In the absence of gratitude comes wanting: unfulfilled desires attempting to be quenched by the next holiday, new car, new job and whatever is thrown at us by hypnotic TV marketing and culture of conditioning. But all that got thrown on the “I wish I’d have said that at the time” pile…
And so the week slid by day by day, eating Mexican food and drinking American beer in thick ice-frosted glasses in the polar blast of air-conditioned cafe bars under the stifling Texan sun, then getting back to the apartment for an afternoon nap, ignoring the NBC nightly news while eating blue cheese and crackers; and reminiscing on what could be remembered and trying to figure out what couldn’t.
It doesn’t sound much to write home about but one day was blissfully like the other, no pressure to do anything, just to be in each other’s company, read, stay in, go out, whatever… the ultimate freedom, bewildered by choice but going with the flow down the path of least resistance…
“Sorry you keep picking up the tab, Son.” Doug said, as we were finishing off our beers in Soto’s Cantina.
“It’s no problem, really. Whatever the pleasure you get in picking up the tab is a pleasure that I can get to enjoy this time. Besides, you gave me this life I have and that’s priceless.”
He laughed but it wasn’t enough for hiding a dissonant look: guilt, embarassment or disempowerment or whatever it was his conditioning had him feel. For me, it felt like the rare opportunity to practice being an adult within our relationship. I took a mental note to remember to leave that space for the relationship with my own sons.
Departing the apartment at noon on the final day was an understated affair. It felt like I was going to Kroger’s for a loaf of bread. I began closing the door on the man and his dog looking back at me through the narrowing gap. “Take care, son. And keep in touch.” Doug said.
“Will do…” I replied, before the door clicked shut.
Silence alone in the car back to the airport has a different flavour to the silence in the company of someone special: silence with an accompanying emptiness. The increasing traffic volume and the slowly extending estimated time of arrival at the airport soon distracted my thoughts to immediate objectives. Tight deadlines have the effect of sharpening focus an elevating anxiety. I don’t mind flying but I dislike airports with their Gestapo like bureaucracy and their subjugating security practices.
Two hours later, I was through airport security, putting back on my boots, threading my belt back through the loops and scooping my change out of the plastic trays after their journey through the scanner. I had noticed the small sign that gives the option for a manual search rather than being irradiated by the cylindrical body scanners. I had plenty of time, so I had opted for the manual assault: the tiny bit of civil liberty allowed in this process.
It was only a five minute wait before a TSA agent dressed as an impersonation of a police officer turned up, wearing thin blue latex gloves. I was given the option to go into a private room but I was happy in jeans, t shirt and socks to go through the routine in public. Nobody took any notice, what with being too busy removing shoes, emptying pockets and surrendering nail scissors and half empty bottles of sun cream. To be fair, the TSA agent looked more embarrassed than I did – and the experience wasn’t that intrusive. After the months skinny dipping in the lagoon and showering on the open stern of Glee it seems bizarre at what people should feel embarrassed about, if it’s other than the erosion of our personal freedom.
By the time I settled into the crowded 777 looking out at the flat hazy Houston cityscape receding below me. I wondered if I would ever see my Dad again: if that was the case, our parting had been muted. While it was sad to leave, business was calling back to the UK: a host of loose ends left undone by my impromptu detour to St Maarten in February – and a chance to see some valued friends and family.
7.45am I stepped outside Heathrow’s terminal 5 onto the elevated passenger drop off into the crisp 55°F breeze and pale English sunrise and sat on the curb.
“Look out for the Ford Galaxy,” Terry had told me. I could barely remember what their’s looked like as Ford Galaxies of all ages and colours came in, spilt people and luggage out onto the concourse, and drove away again one after another. Twenty minutes later, I could see Margrit’s curly haired silhouette through the reflected clouds in the windscreen as the car exited the top of the ramp and pulled up to the curb next to me.
Dropping my rucksack into the back seat and clipping on the seat belt in the front, we drove away and my eyelids began to feel heavy. It was a new dawn welded onto yesterday without the usual separation of a night’s sleep. My body was telling me it was bed time but the scenery told me it was already tomorrow morning.
This dawn was another marker; the end of something past and a clearing for something ready to be written…