His tuneless hum cued me when he was moving. I’d listen for the shuffle of shoes to hear where he was heading. Bathroom. Back to the living room. Ok. I could relax.
It's been 19 months since I came to support Bill through pandemic lockdown. Like everyone I had no idea that a year and a half later we'd still be in it. As the waves waxed and waned, the steadier tide was dementia. This is one that rolls in but does not recede. Now we're coming to the point where I can no longer on my own keep the rising water at bay. In a few days he goes into care.
Two main emotions hold a balanced tension within me. Sadness acknowledges that it will be a loss for him to leave his home — his favorite spot on the couch, peanut butter and jam sandwiches, watching the hummingbirds at the feeder on the porch. He no longer knows the neighbours who greet him as they walk their dogs, but he enjoys the interaction and they all think he's so sweet.
I've known Bill for 35 years and only recently have I experienced the sweet that others were exposed to. Although he and Amy, my in-laws, Paul's parents, have lived close to us, we never had a particularly close relationship. We saw them for holiday meals, occasional Sunday suppers and events. Twice when Finn was a baby we took little holidays together but that's a long time ago. Bill always seemed emotionally distant and somewhat disinterested in our lives. I knew that alcoholism had affected his marriage and relationship with his children. And although he has been dry for most of the years I've known him, his interactions with his children remained, at best, surface. After Amy died we made a point of reaching out more, more phone calls, more visits. I continued that after Paul died.
The other abiding emotion, I recognize, is gratitude. And when I say that, I can feel the truth of it wash through me like a cleansing wave. Gratitude for these past 19 months. Gratitude for the opportunity to have a relationship with Bill that would not have been possible otherwise. To eat meals together, to tend .... not just that I tended him but in small ways he tended me .... Calling out and asking if I needed help in the kitchen, calling me M’dear as I assisted him to prepare for and snuggle into bed ....
It was a fraught beginning for sure after the first few weeks I was here. Then his dementia took him to a place of feeling like I had done something — I had sabotaged the phones, I was preventing him from driving, which to be honest I was. I parked my car in front of the garage so that he couldn't take the truck even if he wanted to. Him threatening to call the police to make me leave but not actually knowing how to do it. And then that passed and we settled into rhythms that changed with the tide of dementia .... Where he used to make coffee, get his own breakfast and shower himself, now there is so much less that he does. The last thing that he still will do is to make himself a peanut butter and jam sandwich.
The time here has given me an opportunity to slow down, to be in this place, and to inhabit a world where he and I are family. And granted, he doesn’t know that in truth we actually are. He knows who I am by name but not by relationship. He knows that I am the one who is here with him. And when the homecare worker asked him what he would do if I couldn’t live here anymore, he didn’t have a response for that other than “that would be a tragedy.”
But it’s not just the fact that he is my father-in-law that makes us family. It’s that we have shared this home together, this world together. We have broken bread and washed dishes. I have helped him bathe. We have gardened together. We have rejoiced over the hummingbirds coming to feed, even when he couldn’t think of what to call them.
It’s a great gift to recognize the gratitude in this time. And the other day as we sat over a meal and I realized that in a few days I would be sitting alone at that table, I felt a pang of recognition for the emptiness that the house would feel when he left. Because as much as I have kept him company, he has also kept me company. He has provided me with a rhythm of checking in, creating a break from my work in order to make sure he had fresh coffee and a sandwich for lunch. Caring for him has necessitated focus and structure.
When he's gone I don’t know if it really will feel as if the tide has receded. Or is it that it had washed up so high that it was time to step out of it altogether? Maybe the latter. And, our relationship will continue. I will visit him where he is. And it may be that he will be unhappy with me, unhappy there, I don’t know. It may be that after a few days he settles right in. And I hope that at least in some way that will be the case. He will be surrounded by people who are caring for him. And I will be left here with the cat and the garden and the mementos of the life that he lived here with Amy and then with me.
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