There are people in life who seem to revel in tragedy. They bask in it, boast about it, appropriate a bit of someone else’s if they don’t have enough of their own to occupy them. Then there are those who defy tragedy, who refuse to let it conquer them no matter how loudly it comes calling.
And then, there are those such as my father. Who can fuck up a tragedy every single time.
When my grandfather died, my dad showed up at the funeral home wearing the exact same suit. As my grandfather. Shortly thereafter, he got us kicked out of Thanksgiving dinner for saying “Jesus Christ, how long is this fucking prayer?” when the pre-meal grace (dedicated, of course, to my grandfather) went on longer than he’d have liked. When my grandmother died, he nearly fell into the open grave in an attempt to place the longest-stemmed flower on top of the casket. Because he thought that meant he would live the longest.
The comic relief is nice, I do admit. But sometimes you just want to be sad. Take, for instance, the moment your father finally forgets you. This happened to me recently, and I think I was well within my rights to expect to be able to walk away from it and cry, go home and mourn properly, tell my husband what had happened while I dabbed at my eyes with a tissue.
Surely I should have known it couldn’t be that easy.
Here’s the thing. Up till now it’s been pretty clear that while my father might not understand, anymore, that I am his daughter and he is my father, he still knows who I am. Totally. He almost always calls me by the right name, and when he doesn’t, he calls me his sister’s name. He also calls his sister by my name, which I think is good. Consistent. And anyway, lots of old people screw up names, even when they don’t have Alzheimer’s. He knows me, of course he knows me, and I see now that I’ve been quite proud to be among the last few survivors of his memory holocaust. It made me feel important, I guess; one of the elite. For the elite, surely the disease might grant an exemption, right? It was entirely possible that he’d remember me forever.
As it turns out, the disease has granted no such exemption, which became quite remarkably clear to me on a recent visit to my parents’ house. I’d delivered some dinner, changed a light bulb, and covered an A/C compressor for the winter. Now it was time to go.
“So, okay… bye,” I said, and leaned over my dad’s tray table to kiss him on the cheek. This was not unusual or abnormal. This was something I’d done many, many times before.
A kiss on the cheek – my normal good-bye to both my parents – was no reason for my father to laugh nervously. And yet, laugh nervously he did. “Okay!” he said, clearly at a loss for words. He looked astonished and embarrassed; he looked like he really wanted to be polite but wasn’t sure how. As for me, I realized right away that my dad thought he’d just been KISSED BY A STRANGE YOUNGER WOMAN IN YOGA PANTS. Right there in front of his wife.
I can assure you that as father-daughter moments go, this was among the more stunningly awkward.
I looked at my mother. “He doesn’t know who I am.”
“No,” she said, surprised. “He doesn’t.”
I looked back at my dad, whose cheeks were a bit flushed from his flattering and yet highly inappropriate encounter.
“Well, that’s weird,” I said, which, at the moment, was about the best I could do to sum it up.
And so here’s what I have learned, since inadvertently making a pass at my own father: that a relationship where one of the parties no longer knows the other is still, well, a relationship. It sucks, to be sure. But said party is still there, living and breathing and doing things to make you smile, or laugh, or want to chop your own head off just to avoid having your father think you might be trying to date him. But, you know. There are still memories to be created. It’s just that you will be the only one keeping them. Or trying not to keep them, depending on the nature of the memory.
Also, those with dementia might remember you because you’re important, but they don’t forget you because you’re not. They just forget you. Nothing personal. Just a little plaque on the brain, and once a VIP, always a VIP.
Also, one other thing, and perhaps the most important.
Next time, maybe I’ll just stick with a handshake.