Nothing prepares you for the loss of a parent.
There is absolutely nothing you can do as a child to steel yourself against the inevitable moment when you realize you have lost the one who whispered soothingly into your ear when you were afraid, the one who kissed booboo's better, the one who taught you how to sing, the one who showed you how to love, the one who introduced you to life and all the world has to offer. There is nothing ...
We know we will lose our parents. There is a law written under the stars that says it must be so. We don't know when, we don't know how, we don't know where. But we know ....
In some cases, we will lose them to death; in others to anger. Drugs or alcohol may have robbed you of a parent, or perhaps they were taken from you before they were ever yours, victims of a desire to remain free, of an inability to truly ever take on the parent role.
In my case, I am losing my father to a veil of forgetfulness, to a quagmire of muddled thoughts and confusion. I am losing him to a spiteful and unforgiving disease of the mind that is slowly robbing him of the knowledge, dignity, independence, skills, and talents he spent a lifetime accumulating.
But I steadfastly refuse to believe it will rob him of his spirit. We're not there yet.
I still refuse to fully accept that he will not come back to us of full body and mind. Even though deep down I know. I know...
I know intellectually that it will come to that if the cancer does not take him from me first. But my heart banishes the thought.
As I watch him dozing in his lazy boy recliner, I drift back in time, thirty-odd years, to afternoons where we would sit in this exact same way. I was a child, he was at the peak of his career. He would come home exhausted, pop open a beer, sit back in his chair in front of the TV and just doze off. And I would watch him. He seemed so big then; larger than life. I would wait for him to wake up and break into a rendition of Kenny Roger's "Lucille" or other such country tunes of that era. He always woke up smiling.
We were expats. My mom and my dad were pretty much my world. I lived for those moments when he would wake up from his 20-minute snooze, refreshed, and then we'd go into the kitchen where we'd take out some crusted rolls, cucumbers, kalbasa sausage and cheese, and set about making a snack and talking about nothing and everything. There was such wonder in exchange. He was invincible. He could make everything make sense. He could make everything better.
He thought everything I did was so great. He would get me to talk in a British accent, a Texan accent, a French accent. He had never known a 10-year-old who did accents so well. He would listen to me play the organ. Oh, my, wasn't I amazing? Surely I had a gift? He would watch me practice ballet; how did I ever get to be so good? This mountain of a man made me believe I had it all going on. He helped me believe in myself. He gave me a thousand little gifts; some that were obvious, some that I am discovering now as I struggle to come to terms with this filthy illness. Some that I am sure he will leave behind for me to discover once he is gone.
He never, ever, not once let on that he might not be invincible. Not a single time. Damn him.
As I sit here watching him doze in his lazy boy chair, I think back to earlier this afternoon. There was a birthday party downstairs. There was music, and old country tunes, and dancing. And I sat next to this big bear of a man and let myself be transported back in time, I was just his little girl again. And I asked him to dance with me. And he tried; it seems we both still don't realize he's not invincible. He was the first to admit defeat. His legs couldn't bear his weight unassisted by his walker. And so we sat back down, and listened wistfully to the old French Canadian songs being sung. Every once in a while, he would remember a few words and sing or hum along. Every once in a while I would feel the tears well up and I would stifle them as quickly as I could.
I let him write on my i-pad to distract him from his inability to dance, and he loves it; like a child discovering a new talent. I watch our roles reverse, as I encourage him in his newfound computer skills, egging him on past his frustration at not getting it right the first time around.
After the party is over, we come back to his room. He is exhausted. He sits down in the lazy boy, has a small glass of wine, spreads a blanket over his knees and falls asleep. And I watch him sleep. He doesn't seem so big anymore. His body and his mind are betraying him. But he is still larger than life. I am still an expat. In a way, so is he, I guess. An expat in his homeland. And this time around, the unknown land is within himself, and there is no fibre optic cable, no Skype to keep us connected across the ocean of disappearing memories.
I continue to live for that moment when he will wake up.
He wakes up and he is hungry. I go to the grocery store on the corner and buy crusted rolls, salami, cheese. And we set about making a snack, talking about everything and nothing, jumping back and forth sporadically across this disjointed time continuum vortex.
And I think everything he does and says is so great. I listen to him explain to me how he is having trouble remembering. How his frontal lobe is affected, and how this makes distant memories seem recent, and recent memories seem distant, or even inexistent. For a while, he is so very aware of his shortcomings. So very insightful. I think he is amazing. Surely there has never been a victim of Alzheimer's so brilliantly aware of his circumstances?
And we eat and talk about nothing and everything. After a while, the same questions come up over and over again. I give the same answers over and over. Where do I live? Do I work? Do I know that beautiful kiddo staring down at us from a picture hung on his wall? Yes, I explain, she is my daughter. Ah, yes, he remembers ....? "But did I adopt her?" No, she is mine. He remembers I was told I couldn't have kids but he doesn't remember that some divine force intervened and gave me the gift that is Kiddo.
He remembers that I am married to a good man. But sometimes he forgets that good man's name. He knows that I am only visiting Montreal, but can't remember that I am staying at my sister's. He knows he is full, but can't remember that he had breakfast. He knows he is nauseous but forgets he is getting chemo treatments.
Nighttime comes too quickly. I have to go. He is tired, sitting on the edge of his bed, ready to let sleep have its way with him. He is still big, but he looks so fragile. He is singing an old song, and he is happy; it is a sad song about betrayal, but he remembers every single word. How very 'à propos'. He doesn't want me to go, so he repeats the chorus again ... he's still sound enough of mind to know I would never leave mid-tune.
I fight the urge to say "dance with me, Daddy", I stave off the damn tears. I lean in gently to give him a hug and a kiss. And he says, "You don't have to be afraid to lean on me when you kiss me goodbye ... I would never let you fall."
Still wearing that unshakeable invincibility cloak. Damn him.
He asks me to turn off the lights as I go. I do. I turn to say one last goodbye, and I see him still sitting on the edge of the bed, surrounded by nothing but shadows. It seems his eyes are closed. And as I pull the door shut behind me, I hear his voice - an echo of the boom it used to be - whisper "y'all come back now".
I think he'd be proud. I hold it together, I stay strong. I walk away with the bearing of a woman who believes we are both invincible.
I get to my sister's, lay my head down on the pillow for the night. I think of him sleeping in that faraway place of everything forgotten.
The floodgates open.