“Let all you do be done in love.” I Corinthians 16:14
As I sat with my Mother-in-law in the Cardiac Cath lab for a ‘versioning,’ waiting for her turn to be prepped for the procedure, I felt my cell phone vibrate. It was my father-in –law. I answered assuming he was just checking on his wife of 60 years.
“Joanne, this is Pops. I’m lost. I don’t know how to get back home.”
`I said to Mom, “I’ll be right back,” and exited to the hallway.
He could clearly identify where he was. I tried to talk him through getting his bearings, but the more we discussed, the more confused he became. I had left an already anxious woman alone while she waited her turn to have electricity zapped to her heart to regulate rhythm. So after instructing him to stay put I called my husband Mike and put him to the task of getting his Dad safely home.
Mom asked what Pops wanted and I somewhat lied, saying I didn’t have the answer he was looking for and had told Mike to call him. But it was obvious she suspected there was more to the phone call.
Once we were through with the medical procedures and well rested at home, we asked if there were other episodes where Dad got ‘lost.’ Mom acknowledged there had been a few, but that lately it seemed to be happening more frequently.
That was over three years ago. After medical testing and evaluations the suspicions were confirmed. Dad has moderate dementia.
My own grandmother slowly deteriorated with dementia. I remember that her ‘episodes’ affected my mother mostly through hurt feelings. But it was my father who truly suffered the heartbreak of seeing his own Mom become a stranger. She often relived years he could not know, those first twenty years of her life in rural Ireland, sometimes speaking in Gaelic as if we should understand what she was saying.
That is where we are with Pops.
Physically, at 84 years of age, he’s still pretty much a bear of a man who did manual labor most of his life. Mentally, his mind has betrayed what he and his wife had counted on as the “Golden Years.” He has always been loving but ornery. Lately he’s been ornery more often than not.
If you were to ask Mom how things are going, she will shrug her tiny shoulders and say, “Hangin’ in there. Doin’ the best I can.” And that would be the extent of the conversation.
She won’t tell you about his midnight jaunts when he leaves the house to go to one of his ‘side jobs.’ He often worked two and three jobs at a time while Mom took care of their five children.
She won’t detail for you how he claims someone, somehow was in their house and stole a very specific amount of money from his wallet, when in reality he simply hid it and forgot where. She also won’t tell you that the huge hole in the ceiling is because he tried to fix something and eventually decided the fix wasn’t needed after all. She won’t tell you how sad she is to see him do these strange and uncharacteristic things.
This is not her Frank.
We have tried to convince Mom and Dad to consider alternative living arrangements, considering their safety and well-being. But Dad won’t budge. I understand. He knows his own home and in that, there is his personal sense of security.
When I’m with him and realize he’s ‘gone off’ into another time and place, talking about what he did and who he was with and the conversation that happened as if it were present time, I just ‘go with it,’ hanging on to every word he shares. For me, he’s giving me a glimpse in to his past, like a family history lesson.
My siblings-in-law have a different perspective than I do with this inevitable progression of dementia. I understand that, too. They are missing their Daddy, the bear of man who hugged you and then kissed both of your cheeks, with a “Mmmmm. Love ya!”
They are missing the everyday things that defined their Daddy. They miss his velvet voice singing Italian lullabies and Frank Sinatra love songs, him strumming his ukulele while sipping his homemade red wine in the kitchen. They miss the pet names he had for them, like, Rags or Moose or Murph. Because he doesn’t remember.
Most of my understanding is with Mom.
My sainted mother-in-law is torn between preserving her husband’s dignity and the emotional exhaustion of his episodes, which sometimes relive a time she’d rather not. This is not the same man who pursued her in their dating days . . . and yet he is, during tiny moments here and there.
Maybe those moments sustain her to make every day as ordinary as possible for both of them. She does this with extraordinary strength and grace, love and tenderness. She is his wife and she loves him.
As I watch her care for him, I hear a whisper that love is bigger than shared memories. That even when we forget who we are or lose our way, we are yet loved and valued. That even when, piece by piece, we are losing who we have been, we are still precious to the ones who love us. And to the One who loved us before we knew who we were and loves us through and beyond the day we might forget altogether.
Joanne Costantino is a Philly girl and “cafeteria Catholic” laywoman living in the wild suburbs of South Jersey, where she still pines for city life. She graduated from college in 2008, two weeks shy of the birth of her 4th grandchild and now there are five grands. The “accidental matriarch” of a life she didn’t sign up for, Joanne chronicles that life at www.weneedmoresundaydinners.blogspot.com. We do indeed need more Sunday dinners.