a letter from my father
I spent an hour with my father at the nursing home last night. I arrived just before his dinner was served, and I knew he would need help with his meal when it arrived. He can’t use a knife anymore, and he doesn’t seem to recall how best to use a fork. He scoops his food with the fork, when he should be stabbing it. He rarely uses the spoon, even when a spoon would be best. It’s a messy ordeal, but I can make it easier for him if I’m there to cut up his food into bite-sized pieces.
Using his fork and a butter knife, I sawed through the Hawaiian chicken – tough, overcooked chicken breast adorned with a pineapple ring and maraschino cherry – while he waited in silence. He doesn’t make conversation any more. He barely speaks to me. In the last three or four weeks, he’s stopped asking about his grandchildren or about my husband. (He used to always ask about Sam.) He used to ask me about any trips I might be taking or about our favorite college football team, the Gators, or about my mother. Lately, he only asks me to bring him water. And one evening last week, he asked me for help.
“Help you with what, Dad?” I asked.
“Help me. Fix it.” He reached out and took my arm in his trembling hand.
“Fix what, Dad?”
“Fix whatever is wrong with me,” he said. “Everything.”
I put my hand over his own warm, sun-spotted one. I ran my thumb over his thumb, the shorter one. Back in 2006, when my daughter was just a few days old, he severed the tip off of it in a wood saw accident while making a cradle for her. He was never able to have the tip reattached, and his thumb was forever shorter – a badge of his love for his first granddaughter. I didn’t say anything to him, just squeezed his hand a bit tighter. He looked away, shaking his head as if it were hopeless.
Which it is – hopeless. That’s the thing about dementia.
Later, when I was home, I opened a letter my mother sent me. It was a letter she had found, from my father to me. He had written it in 1982, when he was working in Puerto Rico, building and installing stained glass windows for a cathedral in San Juan. I was nine years old, the same age my daughter is now.
I don’t remember what prompted him to write this letter to me, but I can guess, based on the content. I had a crush on a boy in my class, probably not reciprocated, and I firmly believed that my parents – my father, in particular – didn’t understand the depth of what I was going through. Or so I assumed.
Reading this letter last night flooded me with memories. It was good to hear my dad’s voice again. His true voice, before dementia stole it away from him.
I miss him.
Dear Merry Jennifer,
It is Sunday morning in Puerto Rico and I was thinking about you and I decided to write you a letter. I want you to know that I love you very much.
I have been trying to remember how it was to be nine years old. When I was nine years old, I was a smart city kid who thought I knew everything I needed to know about everything. I had a girl friend that I loved and I never agreed with my parents. I saw no reason to do as they told me and constantly argued with them. We had no money for anything and I had a 5 year old brother and a one year old brother. we lived in a small apartment in a city housing development. You would call it a slum. The next time we are in Louisville I will take you to see my old neighborhood.
My girlfriend was a girl named Kay and she was as smart as I was. She knew everything she needed to know about everything. She was my best pal and we were going to grow up and get married and be rich and famous. I am sure I loved her as much as you love Chris. So you see I do know how you feel. As I grew older and Kay grew older we still loved each other. We were always in touch with each other even though we grew up and married other people. I look back on our relationship and realize that although we loved each other it was not the kind of love that means getting married. You must understand that people always change. Your mother loved somebody when she was nine years old and probably planned to get married to her boyfriend at nine years old too. I changed, your mother changed, and you, too, will change. There is nothing wrong with being in love, in fact it is great. I am in love with your mother and it is a different and better kind of love than a nine year old can have.
I want you to know that I want you to know love and that I do not want you to think I do not understand because I do understand. I want you to realize that I have been ten years old, twenty, thirty, and forty, and you have not. If you were going to take a trip you would want to have a map. That is what your mother and I want to be for you – a map of life. I do not want you to follow our map but I do want you to know where the detours are and avoid the washed out roads and the dangerous roads through the rough neighborhoods.
I hope you understand that I do not mean to make fun of you and Chris. The only reason I do or seem to is because I have been where you are and realize that you have a long way to go.
I love you Merry Jennifer, my special little girl.