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The (Extremely) Long Goodbye

We got some bad news about my dad today.

It’s never really GOOD news, as he’s in the final stages of dementia. However, today we heard he’s only eating about 40% of what he should, he’s extremely thin, and incredibly weak. He has to be fed by staff; up until recently, he could at least feed himself. He is wasting away into nothing.

When I last saw him at Christmas, he was already thin and weak, so I am having a hard time picturing him thinner and weaker. He was at least eating quite a bit and feeding himself without too much fuss. He seemed to know who I was at least a little bit of the time.

Today I doubt he’d acknowledge me at all, much less recognize his daughter.

They call dementia “The Long Goodbye,” and they were not kidding about that. It’s been excruciating, watching this man who was my Daddy deteriorate into a shadow of his former self. Always the smartest in the room, he’s completely non-verbal. Always extremely affectionate, I haven’t heard him say my nickname in more than three years, maybe longer.

I miss being able to talk to him. I lost my mother in 1996, and my dad has had to play the role of both parents since then. He’s done an excellent job, mostly, with a few gaffes that are to be expected.

One time, while on the phone lamenting about a boy who had ghosted me, I said, “Daddy, what is wrong with me?”

His answer?

“I just don’t know.”

There was a big pause, and then I laughed and said, “Dad, you are lucky I have had enough therapy to understand that was a misstatement. For the record, the appropriate response is always, ‘NOTHING, baby girl. Not a thing wrong with you.’”

He laughed and said he’d take note of it, and to his credit he never said anything remotely like that again.

What I wouldn’t give to have a million more misstatements from him.

Even though he wouldn’t know who I am, I am deeply saddened by the fact I may never see him again. He is in a memory care facility in Texas, and the rules and regulations are such that no one can go in to visit. I think some people can visit outside, six feet apart and masked, but my dad is not in any condition to do that.

Normally I would have visited at least twice since the holidays – I try and get there once a quarter, to see my family – but the COVID-19 quarantine has prevented this.

Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe I don’t want to see my father in his current condition. Maybe it’s best to remember the fun things, like how he was always the one to go horseback riding with me wherever we went.

Not long after he moved to Waco, he found a riding outfit where you could rent horses and ride along the Brazos river, through a park, so he organized it. When we arrived, it was clear he had told the wranglers he wanted to take his daughter on a trail ride. What he had not made clear was that his daughter was a fully-grown adult woman, because they had a medium sized, cute as could be, paint pony saddled up for me and ready to go. With a lead line.

Dad looked horrified, turned to me and said, “Well, I guess I left some information out of the conversation.”

I just laughed, told them that was fine, I was only 5’4” and light enough (at the time) to ride a pony without killing it, so off we went, him on a big horse and me on a pony.

Without the lead line.

I wish I had one now, so someone could guide me through this process. I wish I had a Magic 8 ball, or a mirror, or crystal ball – something to tell me what’s coming next and how to prepare and when it will all happen.

We didn’t think he’d live this long after his diagnosis, so who knows how much longer we have with him. Some days it’s like he’s already gone, and I talk about him in the past tense. Then I feel guilty. But I shouldn’t. So much of him IS already gone, the stuff that made him Jeff, that made him our Dad, has been gone for years.

We will all mourn deeply when he is really, truly gone – me, my brother, my sister-in-law, my stepsister, her husband, my nieces and nephews – and yet we all mourn just about every day, and have for years now.

It’s not over when he’s gone. My stepmother, Marvis, his wife of almost 30 years, has Alzheimer’s and is also in memory care. We will do it all over again while we watch her, this woman who made my Dad so happy and who is Gram to the children in our family, slowly slip away from us. By then we will be experts, but none of that will prepare us for the day she forgets us too.

I can promise we will not forget them, not until we are all old and ravaged by time and possibly the same diseases. We will remember the stories they told, the things we did together, the places we went as a family. And one day, we will all gather in Carmel, CA, and ride a boat to the middle of Monterey Bay, and put their ashes to rest in their favorite place in the world.

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