This Is How It Really Feels to Struggle with Your Dad’s Dementia

Written by | Columnists and Letters, Gay Voices

Father and Son Embrace

Photo by VGstockstudio / shutterstock

Wade takes his dad for a visit to the past but discovers that the same scenes that bring his father comfort can also be haunting reminders.

Memory Lane

Each time I visited my father when he was in the grip of worsening dementia, he liked me to take him on meandering drives in the car. I called them “trips down memory lane.”

The experience is somewhat akin to the movie Groundhog Day. Since his memory of current events is so poor, he seems constantly surprised to see me. But our drives together connect to something deeper within him. He can still recall distant memories about the places that we visit as though they had occurred yesterday.

These trips connect to something deeper within me, as well, but in a different way. So many of these places are loaded with emotional juxtapositions — wonderful memories coupled with painful ones. All at once, I remember how the places felt back then, but I also see how time has changed them — and me.

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A Lifetime Away

My childhood home is only a few miles from the little house in which my father now lives with full-time care. But it’s also a lifetime away. The house is built of Arkansas stone and cedar. Its soaring roof and river-rock fireplace now belong to a young family. They have “cleaned up” the yard — removing my mom’s beloved flower and herb gardens, and my father’s vegetable garden. But the laundry lines still stand tall along the row of pine and cedar trees that edge the woods.

“Smells like heaven,” my father says from the passenger seat as we pull up. I know the special meaning those three words hold. Even after my parents had finally bought a new washer and dryer, they still hung our clothes outside on those long clotheslines. They said, the fresh air made them “smell like heaven.”

I smile at my father. “Home,” he says.

But the place holds more than happy memories for me. For years, I had begged my parents to sell this house — first after my brother Todd died and then again as they got older. The house and the little town where I grew up were isolated — far from conveniences, hard to travel to and from, lacking modern amenities. Growing up there had felt like being imprisoned, like I had been sentenced to spend my childhood locked away from the world. My uncle (Dad’s brother) once told me he wished he could have burned the house down, because it kept my parents trapped in the past. Yet, even when my mom died, my father insisted on staying until his health failed.

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The Final Stops

The next stop is our family’s old log cabin in the middle of nowhere. I spent childhood summers there with my grandparents. It had been my escape — from school, from bullies, from myself, from a world I didn’t yet understand.

But when I get out and peek around, it feels different. Where is the old moose head? Where’s the spot on the bluff where I had read so many books with my grandmother?

“Good times,” my father says, as the creek shimmers in the distance.

Finally, we stop at the cemetery. It may seem like a morbid place to end to our trip, but I’ve come to understand its importance to him. This is where our family now resides: my grandparents, my mom, my brother, so many other relatives.

“Me?” my father asks, inquiring about his plot.

“Between Mom and Todd,” I say. He nods.

“You?”

I ignore his question because I won’t be buried here. I will have a plot next to my husband Gary in Michigan. It was a place to which we traveled on vacation and moved on a whim. Now it’s the place I think of as home.

Places from My Past

A few days later, Gary and I are driving back to Michigan — stopping at other places from my past: my old college dive bar, the St. Louis coffee shop where Gary and I met, the first home we shared.

I’m finding that I still love — but no longer miss — these places. Although pieces of my heart will always be buried there, I can’t stay there with them because I have too many more places left to go.

As Gary and I smile and take pictures with these ghosts from the past, I am coming to understand that it’s OK for me to revisit these places as long as I know I don’t have to truly return. I’m also realizing that you don’t always have to travel far to have a memorable trip, but also that time can feel like a great distance and sometimes the past can be the strangest place of all.

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Want More?

Check out Wade’s memoirs, including It’s All Relative and At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream, and his novels under the pen name Viola Shipman, such as The Recipe Box and The Hope Chest. To learn about them all, visit waderouse.com.

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Last modified: August 27, 2019