Growing up, my father wasn’t one for conversations. He’d sit on the sidelines, putting up with things until he didn’t, but back then his anger was a puff of smoke with a joke for an exclamation mark. If you smiled, he won.
Today, there’s no joking in his voice. He’s on the phone, announcing that he and Mum are getting a divorce. It’s heartbreaking but not because it’s true. It’s the same phone call that has started my morning every day this week.
“We’ll have to split the assets, sell the house. I need to find somewhere to live,” he says.
“But Dad,” I say, gently. “You have somewhere to live. You’re in the nursing home, remember?”
As he falls silent, I picture him taking in his surroundings – the cold vinyl floor, the hospital bed, the sterile atmosphere that asserts itself through the mountain of photos we put on the walls.
When he was diagnosed with vascular dementia, I dreaded watching him lose his memories to the point of no longer knowing us. But the reality is, there’s no graceful descent – it’s an erratic illness that eats away at the sweetest parts, constantly shifting from one day to the next. And this has been a bad week.
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"No one comes," he says. "I’m all alone."
Mum visits him nearly every day, though we all tell her to have a rest. Dad is the habit of a lifetime and it’s a hard one to break. When she does take a day off because her hip’s playing up, the phone calls begin. We counted up to 20 one day. Seven missed in the single hour she spent commiserating with a neighbour whose husband is in the same place.
If she doesn’t answer, the chorus begins – first my phone, then my brother’s, then their friends. 'I can’t find your mother.' When he reaches her, desperation turns to venom. 'You don’t care about me. I want a divorce. I’m going to kill myself.'
There are endless YouTube videos about dementia and I’ve stashed every piece of advice away while praying I won’t ever need to use it. But lately, I seem to be using distraction a lot.
I promise to visit him later with doughnuts, asking if he remembers taking me to the shopping centre after dentist visits for the hot cinnamon kind, ruining all the good work he’d just paid for.
He goes quiet again, then makes a sound that could be a laugh. ‘We never did tell your mother.’
Growing up, lollies and chocolate bars were a staple. He kept a cupboard in the house for the sweet things that made our little faces light up. If I was sick, he’d take me out for ice cream, letting me choose as many flavours as I wanted. During my longs stays in hospital, he snuck in lemonade. He coaxed smiles with sweetness. It was a fair price to pay for a win.