Never Goodbye

Navigating the Journey through Dementia

When we first visited the house on the lake, my kids were young, five and six years old. The house was barely a skeleton with an erected frame, some outside walls, and a wooden floor that spanned a generous slab of granite jutting out from the ground. This bulge of rock ended in a steep drop-off of about fifteen to twenty feet. Somewhat final plans were beginning to take shape. My Mom opened a roll of blueprints that she had labored over and showed me where the screened in porch would attach to the house. An outcrop of rock that poked into the way of normal floor dimensions would uniquely emerge from the floor in the corner of the porch. Since my mom loved the rock on the property, especially rock patterned with lichen and moss, the stone floor corner suited her perfectly.

Walkway between the porch and the house

A railed walkway would extend over the drop-off from the other side of the porch and wind around to the front of the house forming a balcony which faced the lake. Cantilevered posts would solve the architectural dilemma of how to support the walkway and balcony—cantilevered posts wedged firmly into the ground and angled against the bedrock underlying the house.

Mom & Dad, the back of the house beside the carport, porch to the left and side entrance

Other plans were still open to debate. Mom developed a sentimental attachment to a particular tree and didn’t want to cut it down. She and Dad were wrestling with the idea of whether or not to build part of the house around the tree.

A sense of adventure and excitement filled us all. My ex-husband was thrilled by prospects of daily fishing on the lake. My son Brad busied himself with chasing lizards and frogs and exploring the woods. My daughter Ericka and I hung out with my mom, took pictures, and went for walks around the lake. At night, like explorers on an expedition, we camped out in sleeping bags on the wood floor of the house.

From that point forward, our yearly vacations included visits to the lake house. With each visit, the house took on more personality through finishing touches and new additions. My Mom and Dad added a window to the side of the kitchen opening into the porch. Under the window on the porch side, they built a tiled counter so Mom could slide dishes of food out the window onto the counter. They placed a picnic table on the porch, on top of the stone floor ledge in the corner. We enjoyed most of our meals outside at the picnic table and often sat gazing at the wildlife across the lake.

View through the kitchen to the porch

Some mornings, deer appeared among the trees across the lake and drank from the water’s edge. One end of the lake was inhabited by beavers that built a dam. We would often hear the busy rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker or the occasional night song of a whippoorwill. After dusk, a boisterous chorus of frogs echoed their refrain across the lake, disabusing the idea of quiet nights in the woods–but still a reprieve from loud traffic and city noises.

There was a white heron that owned a section of lake directly across from the house, and he spent his time fishing with his enormously long beak. My dad’s binoculars provided close-up views of all these creatures and magnified a certain fascination for the banks on that opposite side.

Dad rigged up a motorboat with barely enough power to pull a skier, which became Ericka’s favorite pastime. He also built a floating dock, turning part of the lake into a swimming area. We had a wonderful time swimming, splashing each other and diving off the dock.

Ericka skiing on the lake

One of my favorite additions to the house included a modernistic wrought-iron, spiral staircase that ascended to a loft and balcony overlooking the living room/dining room area. The bunk beds I slept in as a child were set up in the loft, along with shelves of my books, some old toys and trinkets, and a weathered, wooden chest that used to belong to my grandmother. A perfect hideaway for the kids, who loved sleeping in bunk beds, the loft was tucked away with a view of the rooms below.

The house was not without its practical peculiarities, all built to accommodate my parents’ particular desires. A carport was constructed with a workshop attached at the back. Extending off the workshop with steps leading underground was my dad’s tornado pit, complete with a sink, bed, extra water, and dried foods. The tornado pit was a shelter of many names, starting out as a “bomb shelter” which continued until the Cold War ended. Having outlived that era, it then became the “tornado pit.” A bit later it turned into the “Y2K shelter” and when Y2K flickered out like a dud firecracker, it became the tornado pit again.

Mom planned her cupboard spaces with certain functions in mind. The shallowest cupboard I ever saw was measured and built to house her ironing board. There was a skylight over my parent’s bathroom and a solar heating wall filled with sand up in the loft. When the tall picture windows in the living room/dining room area let too much heat escape during the winter, my mom and dad designed and built shutters made from Styrofoam. Covered with coarse linen cloth and painted beige, the shutters fit inside the tall windows and became part of the decor.

The house split into several levels. Three steps on both sides of the enormous fireplace descended into the open living room/dining room area. The vaulted ceiling angled down from above the balcony and loft to meet tall picture windows that looked out onto the lake. Sliding doors on either side of this spacious room opened up onto the outside walkway and balcony that ran in front of its large picture windows.

Living room, fireplace and partial view of the loft

Of all the house’s unusual characteristics, the fireplace stood out as one of the most spectacular. You couldn’t help but notice it when you walked in the front door. Centered in the middle of the house, between two sets of descending steps into the living room, the fireplace extended from the floor to the top of the high vaulted ceiling. It was not traditionally shaped, but had a hollowed out section between the two groupings of mortared stones. The front section contained a black wrought-iron, angular stove where you placed logs. Also unique was the pattern in which the stones were laid—horizontally not vertically. However, most amazing of all was the fact that my mom and dad hauled a myriad of rocks from their property and with their own hands built the fireplace, lifting and laying it stone by stone.

With black slate floors, counters of turquoise ceramic tiles in the kitchen, rust red-orange tiles in the guest bathroom and master bathroom, warm brown carpets, and olive green accents, the house was a striking palette of colors. Equally alluring were the decorations of Mexican pots, lamps, candelabras, and other rustic treasures Mom and Dad had collected from their travels.

Throughout the years of our visits, (when I lived with Dad and after Dad went into assisted care) the house continued to hold its charm. It remains such a reflection of my parents in their golden years that I could never bring myself to sell or rent it to pay for Dad’s living assistance. So there it lies in its nook of the woods. The house on the lake sits perched on the rock like an old friend patiently awaiting my next visit. And with each visit, we renew our friendship and re-create cherished memories—memories of family, the magic of nature, and the aesthetic story of how it came to life.