Last week, as I was leaving a family dinner at my parent’s house, my Dad hugged me and said quickly “We need to talk.” He sounded concerned, and so I decided to take him out for coffee later that week so that we could have some privacy. My Dad is retired and has dementia, so he is home with my Mom 99% of the time; because he can no longer drive, his life has become limited to the things he can do with my mother. I figured that my Mom could use some time alone, and my Dad could use an excuse to get out of the house, so we set a date to go out for coffee.
By the time I could get to my parent’s house to pick up my father, he had already had two cups of coffee and really didn’t feel like having more caffeine, so instead we opted for a late lunch. I gave him several options, but his dementia kept interfering with the conversation. After about three rounds of asking him to pick what kind of food he wanted for lunch, I finally blurted out “Tacos or salad?” and he quickly replied “Are you crazy? Tacos!” I’m still learning how to effectively communicate through the fog of his dementia.
While we were still on the way to our lunch, I asked him what he wanted to talk about, and he opened by saying “You probably don’t want to hear this.” My standard response to anyone who says such a thing to me is “It doesn’t matter what I want to hear, if what you’re saying needs to be said.”
I should have kept my mouth shut.
For the next 10 minutes, I had to fight to overcome the urge to put my fingers in my ears and loudly sing “LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!”
What is it with older parents who suddenly start revealing deeply personal things to their children? For several years now I have thought perhaps my parents were just unusually candid, but recently a colleague told me that her father has been making similarly shocking (and occasionally unwelcome) revelations to her.
It must be one of the provisions of joining AARP: Once you get over 65, you must overshare with your adult children.
The funny thing is that until recently, I thought that my parent’s habit of oversharing was simply an extension of their honesty with me when I was a teenager. My parents never hid the truth from me about their own teenage mistakes, challenges, and outright failures; my parents believed that I could learn from their life lessons without having to repeat them myself. Even back then, before I realized how rare it was to receive such a gift of honesty from my parents, I greatly appreciated their candidness. Please understand, I was not one of those saintly teenagers who never gives their parent’s any problems. The truth is that I was an obnoxious teenager (especially during my freshman year of college) and I know that I tested the limits of their patience many, many times. Despite that, I valued my relationship with my parents and respected them. Hearing stories about their struggles with self-esteem, or the social cost of refusing to go out drinking with their friends, or the ways they were singled out as nerds because they valued learning…it made it easier for me to believe that high school only seemed like it would last forever. It made it easier for me to believe that one day I would find my group and discover that I was perfectly normal. The idea that I would one day ‘fit in’ was balm to my incredibly nerdy, chubby, over-achieving, academically-focused self.
Let’s not discuss the fact that I am still nerdy, chubby, and a notorious over-achiever; the only reason I’m not currently academically focused is because I’m not in school anymore. I have, however, found my people and feel like I am relatively normal. The fact that I found a husband who is almost exactly like me…except for the chubby part…has made a huge difference as well.
Back to my parents.
So there I was, in the car with my Dad, listening to him say things that in all actuality I did not want to hear. Let’s just say that his sharing was intensely personal. All I could do was listen, because I didn’t have any good advice for him; I’ve never experienced anything like what he’s experiencing right now. I’m 53 years old and in relatively good health. My father is 76 and he has vascular dementia; the stroke that brought this on happened eight years ago. He has been slowly losing himself ever since, and the loss gets greater and faster every day. That’s what dementia does: it steals your “Self.” You think you know who you used to be and who you are now, but what you think you know keeps shifting and changing and getting lost in the haze that fills your memory. Dementia steals your ability to observe yourself and your performance; it keeps you from honestly admitting to all that you cannot do and from understanding how your deficit impacts those around you. Consequently, my father cannot drive anymore and he blames my mother for that even though he failed to pass a driving evaluation designed to evaluate people with dementia. My father cannot travel anymore because he becomes disoriented and afraid in unfamiliar places, but he swears that he and my mom don’t travel because she doesn’t want to go anywhere. He doesn’t remember his own behaviors towards my mother over the last few years (or months, actually) and so he can’t understand why she reacts to him the way she does when he raises his voice. Dementia has stolen the life my father imagined that he and my mother would have after he retired, and now dementia is even stealing his past. During our lunch together I was stunned to discovered that my father is forgetting key details of his parent’s lives, which tells me how advanced his dementia has become. Any attempts on my part to jog his memory and try to remind him of the history that I remember (especially the things that have occurred in his family since I became an adult) only serve to frustrate and anger him.
I sat in the car, listening to all my Dad had to say, feeling helpless to relieve his emotional distress and helpless to stop things from getting even worse.
Just as we got to the restaurant my father turned to me and said “I know that I shouldn’t tell you these things, but I feel safe telling them to you.” He could barely look at me.
So I looked at him and said “Daddy, you tell me anything you want to tell me. You get no judgment from me, no matter what. I’ll always be here to listen to you.”
This is all my father has to give me now. He can give me his truth, no matter how twisted and ill-remembered it is. He can’t help me fix things around the house anymore because he can’t follow instructions. He can’t give me good advice because he can’t keep his own wisdom from getting twisted up with vague memories and everything comes out wrong. There is so much that he can’t do for me, and so many, many things that I cannot really do for him either. But neither of us needs the other to do anything, really.
Maybe all that is left for us to do is to listen.
My Dad can tell me things that he knows I don’t want to hear because he knows that I am safe, and that word means more to me than I can tell you. My Daddy trusts me, and that is the greatest gift he could possibly give me.
My prayer today is that God grant us each someone safe to share our truth with, and that God make us a safe space for someone who needs to say the words they know that no one wants to hear.