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(This piece first appeared in Men's Health in September, 1995.
Minding My Father
two men near bucket of golf balls

The dementia ward was a grim, depressing panorama. The beige walls appeared dimly lit, and the sun didn't want to be here, reluctantly filtering through the floor's many windows. The recreation room had a few tables, a big screen television and numerous chairs on one side of the checkered linoleum floor. A contorted, napping figure occupying one of the high-backed, heavy feeding chairs would occasionally emit an anquished scream, then drop back into his shard of the world. Down a corridor some raspy tenor emitted the repetitive cry, "I can't do nothin'. Somebody help me! I can't do nothin'." It continued for hours. The nurses said the man knew he was yelling, but confessed he just couldn't make himself stop.

The unlocked portion of the ward was similar to any hospital, but the locked end was gray and miserable. Not even the small things my father took pleasure in were here for him. He wouldn't be able to prepare for bed by turning off the ceiling light and clicking on the small lamp by his nightstand, which gave his room a warm, inviting glow. The free-standing, heavy institutional locker resembled a tall, brown refrigerator with a silver metal lock. Attendants would indifferently hang his laundered but wrinkled clothes on wire hangers.

Patients on the locked side wandered aimlessly throughout the day, in and out of each room, down one corridor to struggle with a locked door, then back up the hall in an incessant, futile journey to find freedom, as if they believed escape from these T-shaped halls would also free their minds. We had told my father needed to stay in this place for a while, but it never registered that he wouldn't be going home until a nurse told him he would be there at least three months.

"Oh, no!" he came to life. "Three months! Oh, no. I couldn't take that. I'll go nuts."

Frustration bubbled, and he fidgeted with his cap, squirming as if trying to escape his body, threatening to throw a styrofoam coffee cup into a wall. But soon the politeness that pervaded his personality surged, and he turned and looked up at the nurse. "It's nothing against you people," he insisted. "I don't have anything against you people. It's just that I won't be able to take this."


Helpless goodbyes

I couldn't wait to leave, hoping the sooner we left the quicker his transition would be. A helpless, dull throb surged in my stomach as we left him standing there with strangers, small and confused.

man in golf cap sitting on grass by his clubs

They liked him there, partially because he was one of the few patients capable of speech. The majority of the patients were nearly lifeless figures. Dad was a cute little guy, still carrying with him some shred of class, always wearing a golf cap.

I know it's hard for you to have your father here, one of the staff said, but he makes it a little nicer for us to come to work in the morning.

It was particularly difficult to leave him after the early visits. He always wanted to go home, and I certainly wanted to take him. But he had to stay.

The staff would lead him back behind the locked door as I left, and he'd turn and peer through a small window, looking a little weary and haunted. Then the doorknob would wiggle, and the lock would click and resist in the doorjamb. Leaving never got easy, and having him at home was no alternative.

His last Christmas at home was rough on everyone. He couldn't retain much, including opening the presents. In an annual habit I stacked my opened packages beneath the Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. This year, he glanced at the packages every hour or so and suggested we should open them. I'd tell him Christmas was over, then decided it was over forever now.

As bad as his last Christmas at home was, the first one without him was worse, and I missed the 2 a.m. wanderings through the house. At least he'd be home, in comfortable surroundings. He could turn on his table lamp in the bedroom rather than suffer through senescence in a spartan room with cheap wall decorations, a couple of single beds, and strangers. I was a zombie through Christmas dinner, then an uncomfortable premonition seized me. The notion was later realized when they called to say he had contracted pneumonia and was moved to the intensive care ward. Alzheimer's patients often aspirate their food, the particles are drawn into the lungs and pneumonia follows suddenly.

My mother was distraught and insisted she had been cruel for taking him to that place. It was of no consolation to explain that their small-town hospital could not have properly cared for an Alzheimer's patient with pneumonia. She later accepted that as truth, but we felt responsible for the fact he was spending Christmas alone, confused and sick. I was convinced he wouldn't have put me there.

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