Not as it Appears

By Erika Hoffman

Not as it Appears

Today I tripped over a long-haired, red fox – a stuffed toy for our two dachshunds. I picked it up, turned it over in my hands, and a smile spread across my face as I recalled something that happened three years ago. Our female miniature dachshund was dragging that stuffed animal around with her, although the toy fox was as large as our little dog, Bear-bear.  At the time, my father, 92, was sitting in his favorite place on the sun porch where our female dachshund liked to lie in a sunny patch on a throw rug over the cool tiles. Nearby, my daughter lazed on the sofa reading. Dad looked over at the dachshund trotting proudly with the gnawed neck of the fox in her mouth and its white-tipped, limp tail dragging behind. “Honey,” Dad whispered to his granddaughter, “I believe one of your dogs has killed the other.”

Heather felt her male dog resting next to her on the couch while she witnessed her tiny dog Bear-bear dragging the toy. “Grandpa,” she said, suppressing a laugh, “That’s not a dead dog. That’s a stuffed animal.” Dad looked confused, and then brightened. “Oh, I see now.” He chuckled.

My dad suffered from dementia. And I’m sure his vision was failing too. Trekking to the ophthalmologist seemed almost pointless as it was frustrating for Dad to gauge what he saw through the lens that the doctor asked him about in much too quick a tempo. Glasses became a bother to Dad; he often misplaced them. Toward the end, he kept his wallet in the drawer too. Yet, when he first came to live with us seven years earlier, he had a recitation he used to ensure he had all the important things on his person. He’d cross himself the way Catholics do. Only when performing the sign of the cross, instead of reciting the Trinitarian formula, he’d utter the following words and start by pointing at his shirt pocket. He’d exclaim, “Glasses!” Next, he’d gesture lower and shout, “Testicles!” He’d complete his sacramental chant with “checkbook and wallet” as he finished making the signs of the cross. At home was one thing but when he launched into this routine in public, I’d stop him before the cringe-worthy moment. As his dementia increased, it became harder to halt the rhyming memory cue before he bellowed something offensive. After a while, I kept his checkbook in a drawer and later his wallet; that ended his stand-up routine of blessing himself.

Of course, my father had other stunts he’d perform if we dined out. If he offered to pay, he’d proceed to the counter, hand the cashier the bill and inquire in a sincere voice if she accepted credit cards. Then he’d nod and slowly pull out his worn wallet and rifle painstakingly, slowly through it, searching. Finally, he’d yank out and proudly throw down his AARP card. The flummoxed cashier didn’t know what to say as she saw before her a stooped and addled old man. In reality, Dad did this prank on purpose; he thought it funny. Then she’d politely whisper, “No Sir. That is your AARP card.” He’d say “Sorry,” and jerk out another card offering her a membership id in AIChE or a Belk credit card or something equally inappropriate. The process would continue as the queue grew, until finally I’d intervene. “Dad, give the girl the right card.”  And then he would with a big grin. The fun Dad had with his visible senility and “punking” people were the good times, and they somewhat ameliorated the bad times and eased the poignant moments.

Dad liked to gaze at the trees to spot birds, and frequently he’d see a monkey. It took a lot of my convincing for him to finally realize it was a bird nest or a configuration of twigs that created an optical effect that looked like a monkey hanging from a branch. I’d say, “We don’t have monkeys here in North Carolina.” To which he’d reply, “Couldn’t one have escaped from the zoo?”

Well… there was always that possibility. I hated to tell him that he was hallucinating. Once at the airport, the wheelchair assistant took off his sneakers and wristwatch and things in his pockets before pushing him through the scanner. After Dad was X-rayed and the vigilant TSA approved and verified he was no terrorist, the wheelchair assistant gave him back his things and coaxed on his sneakers and retied them. At the gate, I tipped her and told her I could handle it from there. She left. When Dad rose to walk to the row of chairs at the gate, he stumbled badly. “Erika, there is a rock in my shoe!”

“Dad there is no rock in your sneaker. You wore them in here! You haven’t been outdoors.” He hobbled and almost tripped as he tried again to walk.

”I tell you there is a boulder in my shoe!”

“Oh my!” I figured it was better to show than tell. I’d humor him. So I untied the offending sneaker and took it off and shook it upside down to show him it was devoid of stones, and it was simply his overactive imagination. Out fell his watch!

“I told you,” he declared, and everyone around us laughed. After that, I wasn’t as smug correcting him about delusions!

As the years rolled on, the dementia worsened. He’d wake my husband and me at two in the morning to alert us that someone had stolen his Cadillac from this hotel where we were staying. I’d reassure him that we were not only in our house but also that his car was parked safely in our garage. I’d accompany him back to his bedroom, down the long hall past our children’s rooms. Those rooms remained empty as the kids were all grown and gone. As I tucked him in, Dad always thanked me for “putting up” with him – his verb, not mine.

His last summer he visited my sister in Chicago because I was preparing for a son’s wedding and needed a respite from elder care.  When my sister and her 6’4” husband came back here with Dad in their black Lincoln Continental, I asked my father if he had enjoyed the drive.

“Oh yes,”  he said. “The G man was very good to me.”

“Who?” I asked.

“The FBI agent who drove me back in the big black car. Nice guy.”

I had to laugh as my brother-in-law does resemble a “man in black.”

Three weeks later my father had a hemorrhagic stroke. Before he was released from the hospital to a nursing facility for recovery, another event happened, and he passed.

Taking care of one’s elderly, demented parent is no piece of cake.  Not everyone can or should try to do it. But, for me, I am happy I did. Despite the trying times and the inconvenient moments, I got a lot of pleasure taking care of my old man. Quite a few laughs too as he was a character and full of joie de vivre. He was part of the greatest generation.

I miss him.

About this writer

  • Erika Hoffman

    Erika Hoffman

    Erika Hoffman pens many essays about what might seem like mundane occurrences but upon reflection, she always finds a story in them worth telling – at least in her eyes.

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12 Responses to “Not as it Appears”

  1. Rose Ann says:

    To navigate the unknowns of dementia with a sense of humor and joy is a gift. I know your dad was sure of your love and empathy. Going through it with my mom. Would love to talk to you about it sometime. Thanks for your essay!

  2. Ann says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience caring for your dad. Hopefully someone will read it who’s in similar circumstances and be encouraged.

  3. Cora says:

    It’s fantastic that Erika was and is still able to focus on the good times and not allow the not-so-good times to drag her down. I am sure her sense of humor, devotion, patience and love provided the very best environment for her father to live out his final days.

  4. Carol Trejo says:

    Such a great story. Brings laughter. Brings tears. I too have an aging mom. Knowing that others have experienced, or are experiencing, very similar things and yet can find humor in it is extremely motivating. Thank you, Erika!

  5. Barbara Margolis says:

    Such an endearing story about Erika’s father. He employed his sense of humor to get through the frustration and confusion of dementia. I also gladly took the role of caregiver with both my mother and father. To get through the tough times, I would remember how they were when they were much younger and how much they loved me. I miss them too!

  6. Linda O'Connell says:

    Your story made me smile. Your dad’s antics brought happiness to many, I;m certain. He was a pistol and you a saint to care for him.

  7. Jane W says:

    Another story of Erika’s of which I can relate. My mother had dementia. She was also very funny. Our birthdays were five days apart. I came to see her on her birthday at the assisted living facility, and wished her a Happy Birthday! She asked how old she was and when I told her 85; she looked confused and asked, “If I’m 85, well then how OLD are YOU??” I miss her, too. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. May 2017.

  8. Dallas Swan says:

    By the end of the story I realiazed, I laughed, I cried and could totally relate. When that invisible line changes from your parent leading you to you being the caregiver it can be onerous , but you wouldn’t want it any other way. One of the few joys in life in getting older is picking up a smelly dog toy is when the memories come rushing back and the bitter sweet love of your Dad returns. Congrats Erika another winner

  9. Sheila says:

    This is such a touching story that so many can relate as we travel along our life journey.

  10. Vipul Mankad, M.D. says:

    Touching, poignant story told with a sense of humor and respect! In the last year of my mother’s life, we had seen the glimpse of dementia. No two persons are alike but I can empathize with Erika’s emotions. Thank you for sharing your personal story.

  11. My father passed away a month ago today. Thank you for sharing how even the difficult moments will become part of the happy memories. I’m not there yet, but I needed to know that.

  12. Lora says:

    Thanks for the smiles Erika, and for your courage to care for your father.

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