At My Father’s Desk: Dementia’s Silent Toll

Grief can elbow its way into life long before death.

This I remember . . .

I visit my parents’ home. Only Mom lives there now. Because of dementia, Dad has resided in a memory care facility for nearly three months. He sleeps often. Awake he can be silent. Alert, he will often express himself in the third person, or engage in various—and disturbing—hallucinations. Dementia is awful. Dad’s in his golden years. Mom, too. Nothing glitters.

Grief lurks.

In my Dad’s office at home, I sit at his desk. One task on this visit has become sorting through my father’s stuff. No one asked me to do it, but I prowl drawers and shuffle through stacks of paper. This is not the desk he used in his productive working years, but where he happily pondered yesterday’s stock market data and tomorrow’s golf game during his well-deserved retirement.

It’s a desk with equal parts junk and precious mementos. There’s a jar with leftover “foreign” coins from a decades-ago trip to Europe with Mom. In multiple containers, he has enough paper clips to supply Office Depot. I find half-century old stationery from a downtown office he left before my college years. I uncover a scrawled thank-you from someone whose name I don’t recognize praising Dad—indeed, calling him saintly—for delivering a box of tangerines. I suspect more than fruit was given. Had Dad spoken a kind word or done a favor that deeply touched that person? I’ll never know. There’s a note from a client he did business with in the mid-1950s. It’s dated in the 1990s, well after the client’s retirement (and Dad’s retirement) and involved thanks for a lunch. My Dad didn’t forget his clients, even after his life insurance career had ended.

There’s a letter to Santa composed by my younger sister at age six. She schemed for a lot that year! However, she reassured the North Pole’s most popular resident that her Daddy would take care of getting a bike. I’m sure St. Nick wiped his brow . . . whew, one less package to carry. Dad kept the faded Christmas wish list, and my sister’s grandiose hopes, stashed between crumpled nametags and pens with dried ink.

How I miss Dad. He is less than three miles away and so much of him is already gone forever, long before his last breath.

Grief hurts.

I sit at my father’s desk, surrounded by his valued treasures and useless trinkets. Early last year, his disease became obvious. And that obviousness kicked open the door to the realization that dementia had been incrementally destroying my father for quite a while. My family has recollected events where what he said (or didn’t say) and what he did (or didn’t do) revealed dementia’s cruel, opportunistic destruction of his mind long before we labeled the illness. On more than one occasion, Dad angrily accused me of being a lousy son. I was conspiring with Mom against him. I was worthless. Ungrateful. A freeloader. Three or even five years ago, when he yelled those insults, those unlovely words, I reeled. How could he say that? What made him so angry?

Now I know.

I sit at his desk and wonder . . . when was the final lively, give-and-take conversation with Dad? Was there a lazy summer evening, before dementia’s subtle, unrelenting grip, that we experienced our last real talk? Was it a trivial chat, and he asked if I’d be home for Christmas? Was it revealing, where we shared about unfulfilled dreams? I don’t know. I’ll never know.

I clear out, clean up, and sort through his desk of memories. I try to support Mom. My sisters and I try to anticipate how to help our parents. We make decisions none of us enjoy and all of us question.

This I eventually learned: don’t be surprised if a friend or co-worker shares that the death of a beloved with dementia brought more relief than grief. In truth, grief remains a lifetime companion for everyone, but sometimes—especially with dementia—it arrives early and uninvited and never leaves.

I sit at my father’s desk, wiping away tears, grateful for memories.

www.larrypatten.com

 

Larry Patten

More Articles Written by Larry

I am a writer, a United Methodist minister, and currently serve at a hospice in California. I maintain www.larrypatten.com (musings about faith) and www.hospice-matters.com. And just to remind myself that I’m never fully in control, my wife and I are raising a puppy. Whew. I have published two books, available on Amazon: A Companion for the Journey: 41 Reflections (Mostly) on the Lord's Prayer . . . and Another Companion for the Journey: 40 Reflections (and Questions) on Faith. Through my professional work at churches and in hospice, I understand it’s difficult to openly discuss dying and death, or to share how grief can impact us every day. Don’t feel like you’re alone with your concerns and questions. I look forward to your comments here at Open to Hope or at www.hospice-matters.com.

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