The cycle of us

Between two hearts, there is no need for words.

When Montaigne wrote his three-volume collection of essays, Les essais, he said he wanted to share “some traits of his character and his humor.” I’ve always liked that. His title speaks to the double meaning of the French verb essayer, which means “to try,” so his essais are attempts at knowing himself so others may know themselves. 

That seems as good a reason as any to publish personal insights. A writer tries to understand her place in the world so she can share her perspective with those around her.

I’m attempting to learn about myself. That’s why I write. But the act of writing my thoughts well enough to share with others is key to my endeavor. I can’t just keep a journal. Writing is performative, permanent. It’s also a practice.

Taken March 16th, 2023

This is me with my dad a month after he survived an intracranial hematoma, which are burst blood vessels in the brain.

Some said he wouldn’t survive the surgery — he did. Some said he wouldn’t get on his feet again — he did. Some said he wouldn’t be able to learn to use a walker — he did. He also feeds himself, grooms himself, and dresses himself.

It was touch and go for a time. He slept for twenty-two hours every day for a week after the surgery, and they were certain he had deteriorated so much he slipped into an irreversible state of existence. Then, as with any miracle, he defied certainty. He got out of his hospital bed in the middle of the night and sought out the nursing staff for a telephone. He wanted to call my mom. 

My father has late-stage dementia, however, and the trauma to his brain has worsened his condition. But he was discharged from the hospital recently and moved into a memory care facility to continue his convalescence. His daily recovery astounds anyone who saw him in the days after surgery. 

When I went to see him in the care facility, we exchanged special moments. They were life changing. I felt like I’d been given a reprieve from my grief, like he’d returned from the dead so I could hug him once more. He was cheerful and loving. He’s a lovable guy.

His speech was near-perfect, better than before the surgery, but I was often gushing and emotional during my visits. He mentioned to my mom he had difficulty finding the words to express his love in return. He hugged me often and held my hand and kissed it when the mood took him. One day, he read me a quote. It was on a calendar I’d brought him. Between two hearts, there is no need for words. He said to me, “that’s me and you. We have the same heart.” 

That he could make this kind of association astounds me. Just the day before we had shared a cry and I told him I knew his sorrow because my heart comes from him. His mind may be dimming, but his heart is forever connected to those he cherishes. 

I suppose I’m getting to the point of my attempt at understanding this experience, the kind you get with a long goodbye (that’s what they call the period from dementia diagnosis to death). 

I didn’t like seeing him in the memory care facility. I’m not sure if it was the old-timey music they played over the loudspeaker in the circular hallways or the camouflaged doors made to look like bookshelves. There were no exits in sight. The place is built for the comfort of the residents, which is so difficult to comprehend as a healthy person. The place feels claustrophobic, even as my dad’s room has a view on the inner courtyard. I can see how small his world has become. My hope is he doesn’t. 

My father is a fighter, he expects to drive again. I’ve never heard him acknowledge his illness, or that it’s progressive and incurable. He believes he’s getting better enough to go home. He understands he’s sick, but he doesn’t know dementia is the cause. An argument can be made for his delusion, though his doesn’t appear as severe as that evinced by the faces of the other residents in the care facility. 

One of the residents approached my husband as he stood in the hallway outside my father’s room during our visit. She pleaded with him to help her leave. “I can’t finish my life here,” she said. “I need you to help me go.” Another woman showed me the Smartie candy tucked in her pocket. She asked if I wanted it. I assured her she should keep it, and she returned it to her pocket, patting it for safekeeping. Two other women whispered in each other’s ears like conspirers. You’d think they were planning an escape, like teenagers in a corridor about to play hooky. 

My father’s state of mind feels different. I won’t deny I saw glimpses of the dependency to come. I also noted his relief every time my mom returned to see him, and his anguish at being separated from his lighthouse. 

It’s my father who’s retreating, though. He’s regressing, becoming more childlike. He’s aging backward.

I’ve written about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button before, which I watch once a year. This time, it marked me anew. When Benjamin returns to his childhood home at the end of his life, he’s about twelve years old and shows signs of dementia. He doesn’t remember Daisy, despite noting something familiar about her. This is a woman he’s loved his whole life, one he’s fathered a child with, and one from whom he couldn’t stand being away. In the end, he isn’t. She moves into his childhood home when he’s found perched way up on the roof of the house. “I can see everything, I can see the big river … what if I can fly?” the four/eighty-year-old Benjamin says to her, oblivious to any danger. He dies in her arms, an infant as clueless to the man he was as when he first came to be. He dies as he’s born, as a blank canvas.

It had me thinking about birth, and that we only recall glimpses of who we were before the age of long-term memory. I don’t miss the young me. I never knew her. She didn’t matter to the person I became—she still doesn’t, unless I’m feeling nostalgic about my childhood. She may have shaped me, but she doesn’t define me. I don’t need her memories to live my present life, at peace with who I am. 

I’d like to think the same of my father’s missing pieces. I want them to mean as little to him as our forgotten memories from childhood. I don’t want his loss to define him. I’d rather know he’s living out a full life cycle, from start to finish, leaving us one day as he arrived into the world, as an endless bundle of potential.

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