By JAMES JEFFREY
It was a Sunday a couple of months back when my father first forgot my name. My sister rang to break the news, exhausted but still managing to muster an air of mock celebration. “Congratulations. You’re now ‘the man with two children’.”
It had been coming for a while. We’d been warned our father’s form of dementia would go from gradual descent to nosedive. He’d been staying with me only the Sunday before. The morning had found him confused and angry, but by late afternoon his old personality surfaced in the bleak murk of his brain.
We worked together in the garden, knocking off now and then for a cup of tea. As the day faded, I lit a fire and we drank beer, watching a fat, orange moon blossoming among the branches of the jacaranda. He was only too aware of his disintegration, and while we talked about happier things — mainly his grandchildren — the dementia kept drawing us back. “After all I’ve achieved in my life, this is all it boils down to,” he mused.
If anything, this was harder than seeing him in the full grip of his disease. It was the most bittersweet of nights and, as it proved, the closing of a chapter.
The following morning, as I spread jam on his toast, he looked at me with a look of genuine curiosity and asked: “What line of work are you in?” This from the man who’d been the embodiment of excessive paternal pride, cornering even the vaguest of acquaintances to show them something with my byline on it.
By evening, he was hallucinating. I found him on the street, convinced the house had been invaded by a platoon of silent strangers. The house was empty, of course. I looked at Dad — the man who’d raised me and my sister almost single-handed — and saw a small, pale man cowering from phantoms.
The next morning, he knew something had gone awry in his head, but still couldn’t quite let go of his silent strangers. I held him, something I’d barely done for years.
Even with his illness, he’d been relatively functional for years, but as the dementia made inroads into his brain, his visits became something I endured with a shameful lack of grace. How much so wasn’t hammered home until a couple of months ago when I, apropos of something or other, cheerfully described my personality as sunny.
Dad would often be in his own little world, but this time he snapped to attention. “You have what?” There followed a bout of sardonic laughter, one he rounded off with a Tommy Cooper-esque, “Ah, it’s the way he tells them.”
I pondered the bunched-up, sarcastic person I’d morphed into in his presence, angry at him for the way his illness had exaggerated his worst tendencies, angry at him for his glacial but undeniable erosion.
Other times I found myself hoping he would die — quickly and painlessly, obviously — to spare him the horror and to let me get on with remembering him as he was before the long unravelling began.
It’s a thought I wished I could unthink, but instead kept thinking it anew. All things considered, sardonic laughter was a gentle response.
Dad finally left my place and the phantoms and returned home with my sister to the house we’d grown up in. It didn’t last. There, in the hallway where he used to make comical monster noises, catching and tickling us in a game he’d invented to cheer us after our mother left, he collapsed so hard he put a hole in the wall. Within days, he was moved into the dementia ward of a nursing home.
I cried with shock after seeing him in there the first time. But during his more lucid moments, Dad seems almost relieved something happened and there are others making decisions for him now.
Sometimes he’s plotting his escape, other times speaking more as an observer, expressing pity for the “poor buggers” around him: the dazed, the blank, the frightened, the ones drifting the corridors in nighties and clinging to dolls, their failing brains sloughing history and experience and dragging them back to the beginning of life.
They shuffle to the door where visitors press a code into a keypad to let themselves out. They stare, pushing against the unyielding wood with looks of sad befuddlement. The door and the wall around it is painted with a gay scene of coral-reef fish, the only branch of the animal kingdom Dad ever declared himself to be “thoroughly bored” by.
Dad is sometimes happy in the garden, pointing out how you can see “all the way to the city”, the distant towers framed by bird of paradise and agapanthus, but sometimes he’s seized by random, obscure rages even there. Other times, he’s falling backwards through time, looking for his boots so he can clock on at the colliery he worked at decades ago.
He’ll probably wind up as a young father again, asking me how my day at school was. It will be a return home, of sorts.
He still has the company of his phantoms. Bit by bit, they grow more assertive as the flesh-and-blood people in his life slip out of focus, flicker and fade. Then, one day, I’ll go out into that garden and sit among the flowers with a man who looks like my father.
This article originally ran in The Australian and has been republished with permission
James Jeffrey is The Australian’s Strewth columnist and the author of Paprika Paradise (in which his father Ian appears rather a lot). You can follow him on Twitter here.
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