Feeling somewhat frustrated, I said to him the other day, fruitlessly, "Why didn't you ever talk to me about your memory problems?"
And he looked at me with this pleading look of confusion, "I never knew that I had a memory problem!"
Whose fault is it that we never had a discussion about this? Is it his, or is it really mine?
When I was younger, it was easy to make jokes about it. One Christmas, when I was in my early 20's, I bought him a book on how to improve his memory as a joke. I thought it was funny. I don't think it is so funny now. And apparently, the book wasn't very useful, either...
Then, when the issues became more tangible, I stopped the dialogue entirely. I knew that it caused him embarrassment so I avoided it altogether. Instead of discussing it together, we ignored it together.
Later, I took to helping him hide it - not just memory issues, but lapses in judgment.
About eight years ago, my father was living in Columbia County with his partner, Barbara. They lived on Maple Lane North in Valatie, just down the road from where I had my first job washing dishes at St Joseph's Retreat. Their little house was set back in from the road a bit, in between two other houses, and behind their house were fields and fields of Columbia County corn.
My father enjoyed setting things on fire. Not random things. Paper garbage, mostly. He had a burn barrel which is illegal but surprisingly common in rural areas. He liked to burn paper, brush that had fallen from trees - that sort of thing, mostly. It seemed mostly harmless.
At this point, I'd like to remind you that we didn't know he had Alzheimer's Disease. He seemed eccentric, and forgetful - but these were two characteristics that had forever been 'Bob'.
My father called me frequently around this time when he was home alone. He was drinking a lot of wine, and honestly, this didn't concern me, either. He had always been a bit of a drinker, and he was sitting safely at home with his box of wine, so no harm. He'd call me on the phone a lot then, giving me play by plays of what was on every television channel as he clicked through with a remote control. I found it a bit frustrating, and I admit to not always answering Dad's calls when he called on the phone. He thought this play by play was very funny, and often cracked himself up. I would shake my head at Dana as I listened to my father ramble on about whatever, chalking it up to drinking too much.
During our phone conversations, Dad often expressed to me that he was afraid Barbara was going to kick him out of the house, that she was angry with him, and he didn't think it would be long before she threw him out of the house. In retrospect, I don't believe that Barbara ever intended to do any such thing. However, the fear for Dad was nonetheless real - and because I loved Barbara dearly, the fear became my fear, too. They had been together all of my adult life, and the thought of them breaking up caused me great distress. I enjoyed having a mother/father family, of which I had not had as a child, and did not lose it anymore than Dad did.
I know now that my father's sense of Barbara's anger was (mostly) entirely imagined because he has since displaced the same fears he had with her onto me. It is challenging not to become frustrated with Dad from time to time. Even though the reality is that he cannot help the issues with his memory, it is still frustrating - and I'm certain at the beginning, it was even more frustrating because it seemed like he was either being stupid, lazy, or both. Barbara would come home from working a hard day, and find Dad had not done anything around the house. In fact, quite the opposite was true - and the house would often be torn apart, objects misplaced and rearranged. Indeed, Barbara was frustrated with him but I do not believe she was ever on the cusp of 'kicking him out'.
He would sometimes call me, sounding sad and agitated, asking me if he could come stay with me for awhile, if Barbara kicked him out.
So, Dad's fears became our shared fears. Unfortunately, we were both needlessly worried about the wrong thing.
One Memorial Day weekend, the whole family had gathered on Maple Lane. Dad was noticeably anxious and kept wandering out of the house into the back yard. He was tending to various chores outside and in the garage looking here for this, poking around there for that. He always had the appearance of being very busy though the end results rarely suggested this.
I was washing dishes at the kitchen sink. The sink was positioned underneath the window that overlooked the back yard and I could see Dad quickly making repeated trips with a bucket from the back of the house, over through the long yard, back to the edge of the property near the corn field.
Back and forth, he carried a bucket, looking harried. Sometimes, he would stop in the middle of the yard, distracted by something I could not tell what.
Barbara walked into the kitchen behind me.
"What is he doing out there?"I finished up the dishes but I couldn't keep my eyes off of him. In the front yard, the family was gathered for a game of croquet but I wandered out to the back yard to see what Dad was doing. I came up behind him as he was filling up his bucket on the tap on the backside of the house.
"Oh, I don't know. He's been doing that," she said.
"What are you doing?"Dad jumped up suddenly. I hadn't meant to surprise him. He turned on me quickly, and had a frantic look in his eyes.
"Look. You have to help me. I'm going to tell you something, but you can't tell anyone about this, OK?...Especially Barbara... Barbara is going to kill me. If she finds out, she's going to kick me out!"He ordered me to follow him and we headed out towards the back yard with the bucket full of water.
"Come on. Follow me."When anyone starts a dialogue with the words "I'm going to tell you something but you can't tell anyone...", it's a sure sign that you should tell someone.
But he is my father, and I'm the dutiful daughter.
And so I obeyed.
Dad glanced over his shoulder, more than once, in the direction of the house. When we were safely out of earshot, he started, "There was a fire yesterday..."
He brought me to the edge of the property, where the corn began in the back and bordered the neighbor's yard, beneath their tall oak. The ground, in the midst of greenery, was black and smoldering.
"Oh my God! What happened?"The weather had been dry so the ground - and grass- was dry. Not a good time for a scheduled brush fire.
"I was burning some brush out back here yesterday. The whole damned fire department showed up! They yelled at me about not having a permit, and then the neighbor got in on it, too! I've always burned brush!"
"What the hell were you thinking?" I asked him. It was not like me to talk to Dad like this but it just didn't seem like something Dad would do. Dad was eccentric, but not prone to making poor judgment calls.I ran to the front of the house while Dad continued to run back and forth with buckets of water. The croquet game was coming to an end.
"Not now, OK? You have to help me. I need to get buckets of water out here to keep it from starting up again and I need you to keep Barbara out of the way."
"She doesn't know. And if she finds out, she's going to kick me out."
"She doesn't know...? Dad!"
"Look. Not right now. I need your help. Will you just help me? I heard everything you're saying from the fire chief yesterday so I don't need to hear it again. Just help me," he pleaded.
I went over to Dana and whispered in his ear, "Keep everyone playing croquet. Dad started a fire and I'm trying to help him... I'll explain later...just make sure you keep Barbara in the front yard!"
Without question, Dana complied and challenged the players to a new game. I excused myself, went into the front door, through the kitchen, into the garage and out the back door to Dad.
Dad was standing out back by the smoldering ground, staring down at it. I took the bucket from him and began running buckets as quickly as I could. The back yard was mostly clear of trees so that I was conspicuous to anyone who may be observing - the primary reason to keep everyone playing croquet in the front.
I'm not sure how long we kept this up. Later in the evening, we had a barbecue and stood around near the front near the yard by the driveway. Occasionally, either I or Dad would sneak away to make certain the fire stayed out.
That night was a long night. It was difficult to sneak out after dark without detection because the house - as well as Columbia County - was still and quiet. We had saturated the ground but it must have been a fine fire the day before because the ground would not stop smoldering.
Dana and I laid in bed, each of us staring the ceiling, saying nothing, listening to the still house.
He asked me quietly, "Do you think she's going to kick him out?"
"I don't know..."
Sometime after midnight, I heard the sound of rain hitting the roof and though I am not a religious person, I am certain I thanked God that night.
The fire had simmered out slowly until it was extinguished.
And I hadn't really helped at all.