Harvey Dickson on “What My Father’s Dementia Told Me”

I read this provoking and compelling piece, “What My Father’s Dementia Told Me,” by Harvey Dickson.  You can read the full post here at the NYT blog.

I was the copy editor assigned to work on Alex Witchel’s memoir about her mother’s dementia. I was fortunate because her writing is compelling and didn’t need any help from me, and also because it forced me to focus on the quality of my father’s dementia, maybe for the first time.

Alex is right: the first whispers of dementia are only obvious years later.

Sometime in 2008, I went to visit my parents, cook for them, do some shopping for them. They were already infirm: my mother in her early 80s, my father approaching 90. At the dinner table, I mentioned the Cadieux Cafe, a Belgian bar on the East Side of Detroit, where several generation of my family have lived. My father jumped in with his memories: long-distance bike races sponsored by the cafe in the 1920s, visits there as a young man in the 1930s. But at some point, he got a far-away look in his eyes, which was not his usual look. He was in his father’s car. “I was standing on the seat next to him. I was just a little guy. We stopped in front of the Cadieux Cafe.” The look on my father’s face shifted. “He went in and didn’t come out. He was in there so long. So long. I must have been crying and raising hell in the car, because a couple men in hats stopped to talk to me, and then they went in to get him.” At this point, my father slammed his fist on the table, levitating the silverware, and shouted, “I was never close to my father.” That my father would have any kind of emotional outburst not related to Notre Dame football was unimaginable. My mother and I were shocked into silence.

Those moments in which his mind left us and went somewhere else came more often, especially after he was hospitalized on Christmas Eve 2008 for a severe infection. After his release, he was in a rehabilitation facility for three months. My mother and I were visiting him one Sunday afternoon when a therapy dog bounded into the day room. My mother said, “Doesn’t that dog remind you of Bammie.”

I thought, Mom, don’t bring up Bammie.

There were several Bammies, but the first was a dog my father adopted, on Okinawa or another island as his Marine unit moved across the Pacific Ocean during World War II. Looking at the therapy dog, my father said that one day he ordered a corporal to watch Bammie while he went out on a patrol, telling the poor guy (as my father told us), “You guard that dog and make sure he’s here when I come back, or I will shoot you in the head.” (That statement was punctuated with a word common to active-duty and retired Marines.) Within a few weeks, his unit was ordered to move on to the next island. The day of the redeployment, Bammie was missing. My father wasn’t really talking to us, but he said: “We waded out to the boats. I was calling his name. The motors were already running. And then I saw him. He was running down the beach. He jumped in the water and swam out to the boat. I pulled him in. . . .” And by this point in the story, my father was sobbing. He and Bammie rode the boat out to the troop ship and, eventually, with the help of sympathetic Air Force pilots, the first Bammie ended up on the East Side of Detroit.

My father’s dementia was hardest, of course, on my mother, who was mentally sound but depleted from fighting her non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She was with him 24 hours a day, when he wasn’t hospitalized for his physical problems. She endured his mood swings, the endless repetition of the same questions, his obsessive monitoring of her whereabouts. Drugs helped. His night panics decreased and he seemed calmer, but we could see a constant and permanent decline. I did what I could when I visited once or twice a month, but each time I came back to New York feeling guilty and helpless and relieved.

To finish reading, click here.

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