Never Goodbye

Navigating the Journey through Dementia

I put my dad on a decent diet, proper supplements, and one by one, we overcame every confusion he was encountering. We waded through his finances, his investments, and his mail.I began poring over his investment newsletters and learned how he liked to invest. I did thorough searches and found the coins he had misplaced. I cleaned his house. My new life schedule at first became, two weeks in California, two weeks in Alabama. As my Dad’s needs grew, it became, one week to 10 days in California, three weeks in Alabama.

At first I called him from L.A. once a day. Then I increased it to twice a day. I got my son Brad to visit once per week while I was gone. Then we upped Brad’s visits to twice a week. The last time I was gone, the neighbors also had him over for dinner several times. Everyone was feeling his need.

It took me a year to get rid of his animosity towards Brad. I countered his accusations, supplied him with facts and gradually he quit complaining about Brad. One day he told me Brad had changed. He realized Brad was a good guy after all. By this time Dad’s irrational outbursts had subsided. He was calm and much more himself again. I knew it wasn’t Brad who had changed.

During another one of life’s boring moments, Dad had become suspicious about a marker on the lake. In an attempt to dispel his worries, I got out a map that showed property lines. I pointed out to him how the marker, according to the map, appeared to be on his neighbor’s property. He finally relented and agreed the marker wasn’t a problem after all. But in looking over the map, he wanted to see the part of his property that was pastureland. I told him I would prefer to take that walk with him. If he were to get lost, I wouldn’t know how to find him. I had made plans to go out for a few hours with our neighbor Brenda.He insisted on walking over there and assured me he knew his way around, had walked there many times, and wouldn’t get lost.

Three hours later when I returned, dad wasn’t at home. I didn’t know if he had gone on a second walk, or never returned from the first. As I was changing my clothes, and putting on my walking shoes to go look for him, an unfamiliar car pulled into our driveway. A man and woman I’d never seen before got out. Then out of the back door climbed my Dad and Chip, the neighbor’s Labrador retriever. The couple told me Dad had fallen in the creek, knocked himself unconscious, and didn’t know where he was. At least, that was his story. He had wandered up to their property, and they found him and brought him home. They introduced themselves as the Sparks who lived up the road in the rock house.

I thanked them several times and told them I didn’t know how I could ever repay them. Southern neighbors in general were the some of the most kind and caring people I’d ever known.

I brought Dad into the house and helped him get out of his wet clothes. He didn’t seem to have any injuries other than scratches from bramble bushes. I could find no bumps on his head—no evidence to support a fall that would have rendered him unconscious. He recounted his story about following the creek to the pasture area. The bushes were so thick you could barely walk. After stumbling and falling in the creek, he became very disoriented. He decided if he followed the sun, he would go west and avoid going in circles. Finally, he came upon a fence that he followed to the Sparks’ house.

At one point he became so tired he had to lie down. He considered just going to sleep and giving up—ending it right there. It would’ve been easier. But then he got angry for thinking that and told himself, “You’re not a quitter!” Chip, the neighbor’s Labrador retriever, now referred to as ”Old Faithful”, stayed by his side the whole time. Millie, however, the capricious female lab, ran off into the woods and abandoned him. For the next week, Dad petted and praised Chip, who became the special dog, the hero. Millie got ignored. Receiving no special treatment or recognition, she was lucky if he even noticed her.

Awhile back, Brad and I, at different times helped Dad buy a cell phone for the sole purpose of security–should he accidentally fall or get lost while walking. But my dad’s cell phone, which should have saved the day, remained hidden in his pocket, beyond his realm of reality. In his panic, never for one second did he remember the cell phone. Had he remembered it, it’s doubtful he would have recalled how to use it. All the high tech communication in the world couldn’t stop “trouble from coming right to him.”

As another year went by, it became more and more difficult to leave my dad. His cars would break down as I was about to leave. The transmission went out in one. A tire would go flat unexpectedly. Things around the house would break. It was as if his protest about being left alone manifested in material belongings around us. A few days after he got lost in the woods, while walking with him and the dogs, I sprained my ankle. It was the very day before I was scheduled to fly back to LA. A close friend joked that soon a poltergeist would seal the doors shut.