Memory Test

On Friday, February 27th, I take Dad to the doctor for his biannual memory test.

The purpose of the test is to determine if the Canadian government should continue funding the costly memory medication. He needs to score low enough to demonstrate diminished capacity but not to fall so low as to be considered too far gone.

As I believe this medication has been successful at slowing Dad’s memory loss, it is an important test.

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The doctor asks, “What’s the date today?”

Dad says, “I’m not sure. It’s March, isn’t it?”

“What day of the week is it?”

“I don’t know,” says Dad.

“What season is it?”

“It’s the beginning of fall, isn’t it?” says Dad.

“What floor are we on?”

“This one,” says Dad.

The doctor laughs and says, “I’m not sure how to score that one.”

He then tells Dad to remember three words for later: apple, table, penny.

Next, he hands Dad a pen and paper and asks him to write a sentence.

Dad pulls back his arms and looks defiant. He says that he’s never had good handwriting and that it isn’t about the dementia. The doctor reassures him and Dad writes a sentence. He goes for a complex sentence rather than a simple subject, verb, object and gets confused halfway through.

“What were the three words I told you before?” asks the doctor.

“Apple, table,” says Dad, “I can’t remember the other one.”

Impressed, the doctor hands him a new piece of paper. This one has a large circle on it.

“Draw a clock,” says the doctor.

Dad draws lines on the circle like a knife cutting up pieces of pie, and asks, “Is this what you mean?”

The doctor clarifies and Dad starts again.

He writes the number one at the top of the circle and then continues along the inner edge finishing with the number twelve where the number seven is meant to be.

The doctor looks at me and I feel a lump in my throat.

We take the scenic route home, stopping in front of the driveway of his old bachelor pad, The Swamp, on the old Pat Bay Highway.

And the stories begin.

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85 and Still Kicking

Dad chokes on the phone when I tell him I’ll be taking him to church on Sunday.

“That’d be a very good birthday present for me, dear,” he says afterward, “I’d really enjoy that.”

The last day of January 2015, Dad and I are spending another exciting Saturday night watching the Murdoch Mysteries on TV.

“Am I turning 85 tomorrow?” asks Dad.

He hadn’t planned on making it past 81, so he’s well chuffed with himself.

Sunday morning, Dad shouts for me to answer the phone while I’m in the shower. Mum’s calling from England.

“She called to talk to me, not you,” says Dad when I ask him later if she’s going to call back.

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“The roof might come down when you enter the church,” says Dad on our way to the car.

“The roof seems to be holding up okay,” he says looking up at the little, old church ceiling from his back corner pew.

The service begins.

Dad drops his cane on the floor and makes a loud noise. I look at him and he holds out both hands like a child would his mother under the threat of trouble. Then, he starts looking around and practically whistles as if he has no idea what I’m looking at him for.

We stand and sit as the hymns and prayers dictate.

The pastor straps on a sweet acoustic guitar and the congregation sings ‘Happy birthday’ to Dad.

He looks awkwardly touched by the sudden attention, but then joins in on the last line.

“Happy birthday to me,” he sings and then adds, “Thank you very much.”

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When communion comes, I walk with Dad down the aisle. On our way back, the congregation watches as Dad takes advantage of the opportunity to hug and kiss all the ladies on his way back down the aisle.

Almost at the end, a man stands and hugs and kisses Dad on the cheek, erupting laughter in the whole place.

I burst into tears, the joyful kind.

We sing a final hymn, one of his favourites. And I envy his faith.

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Go Now In Peace…Never Be Afraid.

God Will Go With You Each Hour Of  Every day.

Go Now In Faith, Steadfast, Strong And True.

Know He Will Guide You In All You Do.

Go Now In Love, And Show You Believe.

Reach Out To Others So All The World Can See.

God Will Be There, Watching From Above.

Go Now In Peace, In Faith, And In Love.

Amen, Amen, Amen.

 

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Ready to Die

“I’m having Christmas with my family like I do every year,” says Dad, playing the dementia card for dramatic effect as he knows full well the family is all away this year.

“With my daughter,” he adds, another set up followed by a long pause for his pending punchline.

“Jessica,” he says, referring to one of Barbara’s girls who has invited him to Christmas dinner.

The joke reassures me he’s not upset about my absence over the holidays.

“Say hello to Elizabeth for me,” he says when I call to check in, “and keep the Senior Warden out of trouble.”

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Tywardreath, Cornwall

“Are you talking on the phone?” Henry asks pointing at my laptop.

“I’m writing stories,” I say.

“She’s probably writing stories about us,” says Mum.

“You can call it, ‘Ready to Die,’” says Henry.

I met Henry and Eva on my first trip to England with Mum in 1988. Mum’s first cousin had worked for Cadbury’s for 10 years, but was running his own fudge factory out of his garage by the time I met him. A gentle giant and his tiny dynamo wife, I loved them instantly.

“They’re very old then,” says Henry about friends of Mum.

“About old like us,” replies Mum.

“You mean nearly dead?” asks Henry.

After Sam died at 17, absenteeism had me out of high school and working as a waitress at a late night pizzeria for the after-bar clientele in Victoria. I remember counting tips on my boyfriend’s mattress on the floor of our first apartment together, saving up for my third trip to Europe.

In 1994, I flew to England by myself for three months taking buses and trains to stay with various family members and friends in England and France. Henry and Eva were a particular highlight.

I remember Henry at the railway station smoking a cigarette by his car, a habit we pretended to keep secret from Eva, but which ignited a camaraderie of slipping away to smoke fags together in the fudge factory, essentially erasing the 44 year age gap between us.

During my stay, I read every Eva Taylor romance novel I could get my hands on. Eva, a former English and History teacher, has published 43 novels; the best part, according to Eva, were the hoots of laughter she shared with her friend Ellen brainstorming ideas for romantic folly.

The last time I saw Eva and Henry was at their golden wedding anniversary in 2005. Pub crawls, bowling, boats and hot air balloons, the event climax was a dinner in a big white tent in their’s son’s back garden in Bath, complete with touching speeches and the bride in her original wedding dress fifty years later.

“Getting old is no fun,” says Henry.

“Don’t do it!” he adds pointing at me.

Now in their mid-eighties, Henry and Eva are coming to the end of their fairy tale lives together. A diamond anniversary approaching this summer, memory and other health problems no longer make living on their own a responsible option.

“I need a shave,” says Henry walking towards the stairs.

“I’m traveling by machine,” he says as the stair lift carries him up to the second floor.

On our way to celebrate our latest reunion with a night out at the indian restaurant, Eva walks around the house with one shoe in hand unable to find its match. Next is the inexplicable disappearance of her hat and gloves. Once sorted and in the car, it takes Henry a good five minutes for the key to find the ignition. Driving in the dark, down the narrow curvy cornish lanes, Henry says he’s going to pack in the driving when the insurance runs out. Mum and I both agree it’s probably for the best.

“You can’t open a book without seeing the word dementia these days,” says Eva regularly.

At the restaurant, Eva decides on the chicken masala before remembering that she doesn’t want chicken due to a program she watched on the tele. She reads the menu again and chooses the chicken masala again before remembering she doesn’t want chicken due to a program she watched on the tele. And so it goes several more times before the server arrives to take our order. Eva tries the spicy pickles with the pompadoms and though they are too spicy for her the first time, she puts a large spoonful in her mouth, almost defiant, when we warn her that she’s already tried it and didn’t like it. I move the bowl out of her sightline as she coughs on the heat.

As the days go on, Eva is plagued by an anxious restlessness. She doesn’t remember where the dishes belong, finds random things like a piece of cake or a boiled egg in random cupboards and drawers. Nervous of sell by dates, she throws the frozen turkey in the bin several times before it’s finally fished out to cook for supper.

Only three activities calm her during our visit: walking, knitting dishcloths and drinking wine. Our bond is forever secured when I pull out my own needles and we knit dishcloths over wine across from each other.

“I don’t think we lose whatever we decide,” says Henry, “but Eva is not keen on Tregany.”

Henry too is struggling. He is quick to forget, but not as quickly as Eva. With an old man shuffle, he checks on her if she’s gone off on her own too long. After decades of this little woman caring for him and leading the way, Henry doesn’t have the skills or the strength to take over for Eva now. He’s anxious for outside support such as the nearby assisted living home in Tregany, but is too loyal to Eva to go against her wishes.

“She was a terrible teenager but she’s turned into a lovely woman,” says Henry, “She takes care of us.”

Their daughter Julie has moved south temporarily to help them transition into the final stages of life. I am reminded of the sadness, fear and conflict that comes when roles reverse and elderly parents are faced with the ultimate surrenders of independence and life. Some, like Henry, let go easily, while others, like Eva, fight against the dying of the light.

“Sometimes I feel cross,” says Eva when we talk of old age and death.

My last night in Cornwall, I hear the escalating emotion in Eva’s muffled voice from the other room. She doesn’t want her beautiful life to change. But it already has.

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Solihull, West Midlands

“It’s Rob’s birthday today,” says Mum’s cousin, Flo, when she picks us up at the Birmingham railway station.

Rob is 93 years old. He still drives and goes golfing three times a week. So does his wife, Flo, who is 83.

Their home is a time capsule. Though they’ve both faced serious health concerns and look a few years older than I remember, nothing of any great significance has changed. They are still actively engaged and sharp as knives.

“Rob’s off to see the other woman,” says Mum as Rob gets up from his chair and heads for the stairs.

The other woman is a long running joke I remember from when I was 12: his computer.

“Katie says you’re reading a thick book on Python programming,” says their daughter, Carol, over balti in Birmingham.

“Yes, it’s a thick one,” says Rob, “But not as thick as I feel reading it.”

Rob gets the program running during our visit. He is absolutely not thick.

“Did you mention your age?” asks Mum when Rob hangs up his call to the heating repair company.

It didn’t cross his mind to exploit his age for special treatment.

“I can get out the zimmer and slouch over when they get here if you think it’d help,” laughs Flo.

(A zimmer is a walker in British.)

“It’s important not to rush into these types of decisions,” laughs Kristin over Skype, “You and Rob were looking into retirement housing when I was there over twenty years ago!”

As the days go by, Flo cooks and Rob deals with the dishwasher. They each have their daily tasks and Mum and I are not allowed to take them over. They have a housecleaner that comes once every couple of weeks but the day to day work of living helps keep them going.

“Rob will move the second Carol tells him to,” says Flo, reassuring us that they’ve made the necessary arrangements for when the time capsule breaks.

Bless their cotton socks.

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Menston, Yorkshire

“I haven’t seen you since you were this big,” says Grace, Henry’s older sister, 86, holding her hand at the height of a small child.

Grace never knew me as a child. She doesn’t remember who I am. She’s graciously trying to protect my expectant eyes from her dementia.

Grace now lives in a very nice assisted living facility near her daughter’s home.

“You look just the same!” says Grace touching my shoulder an hour later over fish and chips and friendly conversation.

She still doesn’t remember me, but at least I now feel familiar.

A game of memory, Grace points at the photos on her bedroom wall and lists the names of her children, scoring three out of four.

“I don’t remember who that is,” says Grace pointing at a black and white photo of a young man, “but I think it must be my husband.”

“I haven’t seen them in years,” says Grace of family, which isn’t true but must feel that way when the past erases itself so quickly from the mind’s view.

“It must be hard to let go after so many years of marriage,” says Grace’s daughter, Briony, of Eva and Henry.

“I don’t know,” says Mum, “I found 12 years to be more than enough.”

We laugh and talk about Dad.

“Oh yes,” says Grace happily surprised at home that night, “I’m Briony’s mother!”

“Thank God we had daughters,” said Eva to Mum when we were in Cornwall.

In my family and perhaps the world, there is an obvious trend.

“Je n’ai jamais l’occasion de parler français,” replies Grace with elegant ease when I speak to her in French.

“Comment s’appelait ton copain en Suisse?” I ask remembering her late night stories over wine about love, war and life when my younger self used to visit.

Her face goes blank. Her fluency stalled. I scold myself for getting tricky by speaking French.

“I can’t remember his name,” says Grace, “Isn’t that terrible?”

I scold myself again, this time not for speaking French, but for asking a question that requires an answer dependent on memory. Language is not the problem.

“But you’re still you, Grace,” I say when she complains about her memory.

“Oh yes, I still know who I am,” she replies and then pauses.

“Just!”

“Now,” says Grace getting up to go to bed, “where am I?”

I smile.

“No really,” she says calmly, “I don’t know where I am.”

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Saanichton, BC

“He was a long suffering father,” says Dad pretending to read the obituaries.

I took the ferry to the island from the airport without stopping to see my husband in Vancouver first.

“This one’s too long,” Dad says pointing at an obituary the length of the newspaper.

“I’ll just read the name,” he says honouring the fallen.

I drink tea and pay overdue bills beside him.

“Survived by his wife of 60 years,” he reads and then adds, “Even a murderer gets out in 20.”

My eyes are heavy. Jet lag sets in.

“Four and a half hours until bedtime,” says Dad looking at his watch.

 

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Just Keep Breathing

“I won the lottery,” says Dad on our way to his bi-annual high school luncheon.

I had nearly died 5 times already that morning, driving to the Tsawwassen Ferry parking lot to catch the 9am ferry. A nervous driver when not on the island, my sweaty hands clenched the steering wheel as my knuckles throbbed, navigating the pitch black torrential rain, lightning, puddles on the highway, and the traffic accident in the Massey tunnel. The shiny pavement masking the painted lanes, the near miss turn offs, and the voices in my head telling me to screw it all and cause an accident. It was a rough start.

“A free ticket,” says Dad, smirking.

We take the slow scenic route to Victoria, West Saanich Rd on a beautiful autumn day, a few clouds but no rain.

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“She’s finally buried the hatchet,” says Dad about Mum, as though he hadn’t spent my childhood slagging her off to me.

“I’ve decided you have to keep learning in this life,” I say, bragging about my latest personal development plans.

“I’m just trying to keep breathing,” replies Dad.

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We park at the hotel, and are the first to arrive in the lobby.

“I challenge you,” says Dad waving his cane at an unknown Vic High classmate struggling with her crooked back and specialty cane to get in the door of the hotel.

She doesn’t know him to find him funny.

“Good bunch of people,” he says after lunch.

“Most people are,” he continues, “Wouldn’t be able to live in this world if they weren’t.”

We talk about the attack on Parliament Hill the day before.

“Extremists aren’t Muslim,” says Dad, “Just like those who burned people at the stake weren’t Christians.”

We take the Pat Bay Highway to pick up Mum and drop me back off at the ferry.

“Look at those blue skies,” he says, patting my arm sympathetically, “Have fun back in Vancouver.”

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Mum climbs into the car.

“You look beautiful Mum,” I say.

“Bullshit artist,” says Dad, “She was married to a top bullshit artist. She won’t fall for that.”

Mum rolls her eyes back and forth, and then back and forth again.

I ask Dad if he needs to use a washroom. He doesn’t.

“He must have a big bladder from all his drinking,” says Mum.

“See? It was a good investment,” replies Dad.

I get out of the car at the ferry drop off.

“When are you back?” asks Dad.

“Two weeks,” I reply.

“I’ll count the days,” he says.

“Yes he will,” says Mum.

“Am I driving or are you?” Dad asks Mum as she makes her way to the driver’s seat.

“Talk to me,” he says, and I laugh and join him in unison.

“How can we have a meaningful relationship if you don’t talk to me?”

Keep breathing Papa.

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Fly like a bird

“I’m not a cripple!”

Dad got mad when Mum took him to the doctor, at my request, to see about getting a walker.

“Since it’s here,” he said to her later on, using it to get around the house.

By the time I arrived back on the farm, he was swinging the thing around like a dance partner.

Yesterday’s update from Mum:

“I took Dad to the market for an outing this morning and he met up with buddies,” she writes, “He asked if he should take his walker and I said, ‘lets give it a try’. Well, he flew like a bird around the whole place, so you could say it was a huge success!!!!”

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Lifeline

“Hi Dad. It’s Katie.”

“Katie who?”

“Your daughter.”

“Oh, Rita’s friend,” Dad says, “When are you coming over next?”

“In two weeks. For Thanksgiving,” I reply.

“I’m sure I’ll be dead by then,” he says.

“You better not be. I’m buying you a new lift chair this week. Mum’s going to come over and measure you,” I say.

“Make sure you explain it’s not for a box,” he replies.

We laugh.

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“I need you to push the emergency button on your wrist. We’re supposed to test it every month,” I say.

“Why? What’ll happen?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Let’s find out,” I reply.

Dad pushes the button and the phone line goes dead.

I call back but it’s busy so I keep trying until it goes through.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Everything,” he says, “Even a floating hand with toilet paper appeared. I don’t know what it was going to do.”

We laugh.

“You can hear it from Sooke too,” he says, “And it even had me talk to Rita for a few minutes.”

We laugh.

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If I Had My Way

“I missed you,” I say to my parents, kissing them hello.

My sister was visiting from Japan for the month of August, so I took the opportunity to take a break from my responsibilities as caregiver and focus on my family with Lynn.

September has returned now though, and Mum and Dad are waiting in the parking lot as I walk off the ferry.

We celebrate over hot turkey and onion rings, or coffee and pie, or ice cream and milk at RnR Diner in Saanichton, the diner I worked at while living full-time with Dad, where they know me as Tuesday.

“Look!” says Kelly, “Tuesday’s here on Friday.”

We sit down in a booth.

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Dad has a cold, the chest kind that sounds wet when he coughs.

“I don’t like that cough” I say.

“Well, I’ll take it with me,” says Dad.

Dad tells stories but he seems weaker than I remember.

“My Dad used to say ‘you can’t take it with you unless it’s on you when you go’,” he says patting his stomach.

“You coming to the reunion with me in October?” he asks.

Yes, I am.

Mum tells me it’s a popular topic and then adds,

“You won’t make it to the reunion if you don’t look after that cough”.

“Oh well,” says Dad smiling, “at least I won’t have to take snarky comments from my ex-wife anymore.”

He pauses.

“Unless I go down,” he says, pointing at hell.

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Dad has trouble getting out of the booth and while I’m paying the bill, he nearly falls on his way to the door.

“Must have been something in the milk,” he says, saving face.

I notice his cane no longer looks strong enough for the job.

“I’m going to get you a walker,” I say.

“I’m not a cripple,” says Dad.

I help him from the car to the house, like I used to with my Granny when I was a tween. He whispers in my ear that he wants to go slowly so that Mum doesn’t make him take down the washing from the line, an excuse to give him time to catch his breath and get back his strength.

Mum flutters about in her Mother Theresa kind of way before heading home to Brentwood Bay.

Dad in his room, Nicol cooking his dinner, and me in the living room opening the mail,

THUD.

I run to Dad’s room. He’s on his back on the ground with shock and fear in his eyes.

“Nicol!”

Together, we lift him up and shuffle him to his chair. He’s lopsided and looks uncomfortable but lacks the strength to adjust himself. He coughs and swears as it triggers pain in his side from where he fell.

“Should I take you to the hospital?” I ask.

“Call your mother,” he says, “she’ll know what to do.”

Instructions from Mum: painkillers, cough medicine and lots of fluids.

“I told you the Warden would know what to do,” says Dad.

The drugs kick in.

“Katie? I have to go to the bathroom,” he says.

I come back with Nicol to lift him from his chair.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” he says.

“That’s okay,” I say as we shuffle to the loo.

He does, and then we lower him down into bed.

“Lay back and I’ll pull off your pants,” I say.

“Isn’t that usually the man’s job?” asks Dad.

I laugh and shake my head.

“Well, I’m leaving you and your sister a good lolly here,” he says.

“I’ll take you over any lolly” I say.

“My time has come Katie.”

“I know.”

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I tell him how I admire how he faces old age and how I have loved the time we’ve spent together these past few years. Tears stream down my face. He doesn’t reply.

I lift the needle to the record and Vera Lynn, the sweetheart of the forces, sings to us.

I crawl into bed beside him, our arms side by side, touching as he tells me stories in the dark.

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“My Dad’s oldest brother was dying and the minister asked him if he wanted to confess his sins,” says Dad, “so he said ‘Father, there’s no time for that. Just put me down for everything except murder.”

We sing along to Vera,

There’ll be bluebirds over, the white cliffs of Dover 

Tomorrow, just you wait and see. 

I remember when it was Dad feeding me cough syrup from a spoon, lying on this very same mattress in this very same room.

As a child, I was too scared to sleep anywhere else in this big, spider infested house. Even as a teenager and young adult, I would crawl into bed beside Dad when I was sick, depressed or heartbroken.

Lying with him now with his heavy congested breathing, hearing stories, singing along or listening quietly, I use all my senses to record the feeling of this shared moment with this man that I love.

Side two finished, Dad’s breath’s heavy enough for sleep, I roll over to leave.

“Are you abandoning me?” Dad says, “or flipping the record?”

I laugh, flip the record again and crawl back into bed.

If I had my way we’d never grow old and sunshine I’d bring every day. 

You would reign all alone like a king on a throne, if I had my way

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