How Did You Love?

Today is my dad’s birthday.He is 88.I cannot call this bittersweet for there is no bitterness here. Tears, yes, but no bitterness. I’ve heard it called The Long Goodbye, the process of watching a loved one, innocent and unsuspecting, progressively slip away in the grip of dementia.In this case, that Loved One is my father. I have come to spend a few days with him at his care facility and to celebrate his 88th birthday with him.My heart hurts as I notice the latest changes in him. The increasing erasure of his present memory, and now, the disappearance of more and more of his past. Both just… gone.I remind myself that he is not particularly unhappy, he is just not the way I remember him. He is far more aware of — and annoyed by — his physical decline than his cognitive one. He just wants to be able to grab a shovel and work again in his garden, to hop in his truck and make a run for his diet peach Snapple.Our visits are not sad; they are pleasant and easy. We talk of his favorite things: gardening, cooking, food, pets, kids. Whatever he can remember, we chat about lightheartedly. He has lost a great deal of hearing, so when I say “we talk” what I mean, mostly, is he talks and I listen. He asks about the kids and is thrilled each and every time as I explain where they are going to school and what careers they are pursuing. In that 30 seconds he is so proud of them.My sadness is only after I leave him, when I wrestle with understanding what cannot be understood, and settle instead for acceptance and the temptation to look for meaning where there may or may not be any.Where I am sad to see him changing, he is merely perplexed, repeatedly surprised to find that he cannot recall… whatever it was he was trying to remember. He is still deceptively articulate. He speaks with confidence and fluency but it’s not words which escape him, it’s facts. The names, the places, the things we discussed only minutes ago evaporate.He observes, repeatedly, as we sit on the patio for our second visit in two days, that the two jacaranda trees in front of us have clearly not been trimmed over the years, that it’s a big job, that it would take one or two workers at least two days’ effort, double that if it’s just one worker…The day before, on a different patio, he observed, time and again, that the hummingbird feeders had not been refilled. If only he had the mobility, I wish they could task him with this. He would feel so accomplished, and the hummingbirds would feast like kings.His knowledge and expertise are there; he is still an intelligent man. He just forgets. We both laugh uproariously when he effortlessly names two people, the names of whom, moments earlier, he had labored over intensely and given up on. I decide that connecting with another person is no less meaningful just because one will not recall the details as long as the other.We have been sitting alone together, on the patio, in the perfect air, with the perfect breeze, amid the untrimmed jacarandas, a couple of hours now, and he is visibly tired. We walk back to his room, he, hunched over his walker, and I, carrying his bag of birthday presents, slowly, very slowly, down the long hall, past the open doors of frail patients, who appear largely worse off than he.When we reach his room he is astonished and delighted to see that his name is printed beside the door, that a freshly made bed awaits him, that the hospital is “expecting him.” He asks, hesitant but hopeful, “I can lie down here?” I tell him, “Yes, this bed is for you!” He carefully collapses into it and I help pull the sheet and soft blanket over him.He is beaming and agrees that now I should take another birthday picture with his new spy novel as he clutches a lemon-berry hand pie I’ve brought him, remembering that he is “not a cake person”. His bag of other birthday gifts and treats sits within reach beside the bed. We hug several more times and he thanks me repeatedly for celebrating his birthday with him. “I’m so happy I could be with you; I’ll come back tomorrow. I love you so much.” I reply, as we hug again tightly.
When I get in the car a song I’ve never heard before plays on the radio, and, noticing the lyrics, I wonder if God is talking to me again. God may work in mysterious ways, but when He speaks to me it is always quite clearly. “I see you” He tells me, as I listen to the lyrics which speak volumes. “I see you.” And then the tears come.
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