The day I truly became an adult I was 51 years old, walking with crutches as a bulky, heavily Velcoed boot covered my left foot. I was sitting with my father in Room 206 of a nursing facility in Liberty, New York on an icy-cold January day. One generally thinks of adulthood as arriving with something tangible, perhaps the conferring of a degree, the purchase of a first home, or receiving a job in one’s chosen career. And while these life events have all happened to me and were, indeed, opportunities for growth, they did not force me into adulthood. No, the one who held those cards was sitting in front of me on that January day, tethered to a wheelchair, desperately trying to get up and walk out of that place — both in mind and in body — and go home.
As was our usual routine in the three months my dad had been at the facility, my husband Bill had dropped me off so I could have some alone time with my dad while Bill went to pick up my mom. I never knew what to expect during this precious private time before my dad’s lunch was served. My dad was always very awake, but his lucidity ranged from totally, 100% my dad, to a person I had never met before, to somewhere in between. Many times, especially during those first, terrifying weeks in the facility, he was filled with paranoia. He was certain my mom had left him and found someone new, he was sure his identity had been stolen, and he thought that Bill had taken all of his money and was raising chickens in a cabin somewhere in the Adirondacks.
But that cold day in January was a good day. A really good day. My dad was extremely lucid, asking relevant questions about my mom and the bills, the upkeep of the house, and if the driveway was getting plowed. Completely normal stuff. He kept trying to get up, because he just could not comprehend that getting up most likely equaled falling. Over and over again, when he attempted to get up, I would gently put my hand on his arm and say, “Don’t try to get up. I don’t want you to fall.” He would sit back down. Try to get up, hand on arm, sit back down. Repeat. Over and over again.
At one point, he tried to get up but before I could reach out and touch his arm, he realized it was pointless and sat back down. That’s when it happened. He looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Are you disappointed in me?” I barely squeaked out the word “no” before my eyes were flooded with tears and I could no longer talk, or think, or breathe. This was my dad. This was the man whose praise was worth more to me than currency. I had spent my entire life trying to make him proud of me. And now he was asking if I was disappointed in him?
In that moment, with that one innocent question, the solar system of my life completely rearranged itself. As a child, I was always revolving around my parents, desperately searching for their sunlight to shine on me, trying anything I could for their pride to warm me. This was not always an easy task. My mother and father were not quick with praise and, since my brother was someone to whom academic and athletic success came more easily, I was always trying to accomplish anything that would equal his achievements. Then I would rotate my little planetary self faster and faster, trying in vain to grab any bit of sunlight I could to earn my parents’ approval. In my eyes, at least, I could never measure up. But I had tried, hard, from the time I was young and eager for praise until that cold January day.
Then my dad, so intently wanting to know if I was disappointed in him, shifted my personal cosmos. I suddenly felt that I was his sun. I wanted to warm him, to shine light on his fading memory, to let him know that it doesn’t matter if he can’t stand up, it’s okay that he can’t remember important dates, and things will be fine if he has a hard time buttoning his shirt. There will still be good days when our conversations will be something I can hold onto and file away in my heart beside the lifetime of memories he has already given me.
My dad passed away on August 4, 2015. There were days when he was unaware of my presence, when all I could do was sit with him, be with him, and try not to let the sadness overwhelm me. As his dementia continued to take more things from him, things I could not even imagine, he was always the dad I respected completely, looked up to with wide-eyed awe, and loved without limit. Because I knew that of all the things he lost, the gentle soul of the man who raised me with the finest of values — honesty, loyalty, and patience — remained whole and undiminished.
And that could never disappoint me.