Let’s make sure we bring Kleenex, I say to Dad as we prepare for choir practice.
“Why?” he asks.
Because you’re going to cry.
“How do you know?” he asks.
Because you always do, I say.
When we started singing in the Latvian seniors’ choir, Dad would laugh and tell me there’s no way I could possibly know. After a few weeks, he explained that there’s nothing wrong with crying. More recently he jokingly told me to fuck off. We both laughed.
The Kleenex exchange is part of our weekly Latvian seniors’ day routine. Thursday is currently my favourite day of the week. It’s also the longest and most intense.
I try to arrive at Dad’s place at least an hour before choir. Initially, he’d be ready and waiting for me at reception. But one time he was dressed in an old, loose-hanging suit, one winter day he wore a spring jacket, and in spring he wore a toque.
None of this is mission critical, but now we meet in Room 1107 where I get an opportunity to gather visual information. For example, I notice that the jars of Latvian borscht and pea soup are empty and discover that Dad no longer uses the microwave. Paintings stacked against a wall apparently indicate that Dad is again preparing to move. (More on this later.)
A few weeks ago, Dad didn’t answer my knock. I finally found him under a palm tree in the farthest corner of the atrium reading a book that he’d been carrying around for several months. He explained that he wasn’t allowed to leave the retirement residence, but that he could sit wherever he wanted. I knew he was also trying to avoid exercise class.
It’s time for choir, I said to Dad.
“Oh, choir!” he said, jumping up.
I’m pretty sure Thursdays are also Dad’s favourite days.
Most of the time when I arrive, Dad’s ready to go. At other times, he needs a reminder to shave or brush his teeth.
Two weeks ago, we searched every cupboard and closet for his razor and shaving cream. I finally ran over to Shoppers Drug Mart and bought new ones. The following day when I arrived for a walk, both the new and old cans of shaving cream were on the breakfast table.
Where’d you find them? I asked in disbelief.
“They were here,” said Dad nonchalantly. He also made it clear that he preferred his old, electric razor to the cheaper one I’d purchased.
Sometimes Dad needs a wardrobe change, but there’s not enough time for one or he doesn’t want to change. Other times we work together to choose a shirt and a purple, matching tie. Dad is the smartest-looking man in the retirement residence! He’s the smartest-looking man at Latvian seniors’ day!
It’s interesting to note what turns upside down and what goes sideways when one has dementia. Most of the time Dad’s happy, for which we should be thankful, says his sister Ausma, who has 30 years of experience in long-term care. Dementia can also cause people to be cranky and grumpy.
In his former life, Dad dreamed of moving back to Latvia to rebuild the family homestead that was bombed during World War II. In fact, when he returned from his final solo trip a few weeks before the pandemic began, he announced that he’d finally made up his mind to do so.
I promised to say more about preparing to move.
Dad considered his move to the retirement residence transitional. A year later, he’s still got his heart set on Latvia. So every few months, or more recently weeks, he packs everything.
The first time, Dad flipped the bed up against the wall and moved his desk and two wardrobes into the main room. All the boxes were secured with twine from Dollarama.
The second time, the desk was gone because it broke during the first move. Since Dad could no longer go shopping alone, he got creative and crammed as much as possible into a garment bag.
Once as we were leaving the building, Dad had an almost inaudible conversation with the receptionist. “Boxes when I come back, OK?” he said. I swear he winked.
It seems (though who really knows?) that the level of packing is related to the imminence of departure.
Dad phoned me on Monday. “Are we going to Latvia today?” he asked.
No, I replied. But tomorrow we have choir rehearsal. Would you like to go?
“I could do that,” said Dad. “No, I want to do that!”
Dad loves singing, and at family gatherings he would always urge us to sing. (Singing is in our Latvian DNA. We’re “the nation of singers.” Look it up!) Let’s sing, he’d say, even if the mood was off or if we were deep into doing whatever we were doing.
I think many of us felt bad when the singing didn’t happen. Or guilty for not fulfilling the tradition. We also felt resentment about being forced to sing.
Though I love the sentiment behind “Bēdu manu lielu bēdu” (“Worry, My Big Worry”), the fact that this Latvian folk song instructs us to hide our worries under a rock and walk over them singing isn’t necessarily always what we need. I’m sad. I’m angry. I want you to notice that.
Dad always wanted to throw a choral party.
Quite a while before anyone knew that Dad had a cognitive impairment, he abruptly decided to act on an off-hand suggestion to join our choir.
Dad’s a big singer, but not a good singer. Later on, he confided that he’d never joined a choir because, as a child, a teacher told him he couldn’t sing. I find it mind-boggling that the man who launched several Latvian organizations and a Latvian-language school and made a point of visiting Latvia three times a year had never in his life worn a Latvian folk costume.
When Dad showed up unannounced at the dress rehearsal, he had no music and no idea what voice he sang. My daughter and I shrank into the alto section, angry and embarrassed. Who knew this was the beginning of a new type of relationship?
By the time we made it to the 2018 Latvian Song and Dance Festival in Riga, we understood that Dad needed help navigating rehearsals with 17,000 singers. We forged friendships with other baritones and basses. One exceptional connection got Dad home safely from a concert that ended at 1:00 a.m. This bond made Dad feel safe and validated, and he proclaimed he had a best friend. I don’t think Dad had many of those in his lifetime. And it’s certainly not something he’d say aloud.
These days, I sit beside Dad at choir so I can help him follow the music. Everything’s more complicated than it was five years ago. Still, it’s amazing that a man who never sang in a choir is doing so at 84.
When I sing close to Dad’s ear, especially when I go low, he sings in tune. I almost think he sings better now than before he got dementia. Or maybe he sings better because I help him.
I concur! And did I mention there’s a crate full of liqueurs on the choir trolley?
Songs in the mother tongue trigger Dad’s crying, especially when he sings. If he knows the songs well, which is certainly the case with our choir songs, he cries non-stop and grabs the Kleenex.
When we arrive at the Latvian Centre, we head straight to the credit union to visit my youngest daughter. Dad saunters up to the teller, proudly reads her name tag and cracks a joke. We do this every week and it makes him – and us – happy.
I don’t think Dad was always like this. He tended to be more reserved, and some people even kept their distance because he was a psychiatrist. Even at our concert yesterday, an old friend joked that he felt as if Dad was analyzing him. Interesting, right?
Dad always tended to offer unsolicited advice. While he still instinctively reaches out to help, he now often loses his train of thought.
The progression of Dad’s dementia hits me most when I haven’t seen him enough. A year ago, I’d fill in silences to help the conversation along. Now I try to just listen. Repeat. Listen.
I do get frustrated at times. Then I try to remember that it doesn’t matter what Dad’s saying. What’s important is that he’s talking, engaging, happy.
Thursdays give Dad the chance to sing and talk in Latvian, eat Latvian food and walk the familiar halls of the Latvian Centre that he helped make a reality over 40 years ago.
Connections among the seniors run deep. They all arrived in Canada as refugees and launched subsequent generations who now drive them to events. One of Dad’s childhood friends says that every Thursday Dad starts the conversation with, “And you are?” That surprises me. Most of the time Dad asks me who someone is before or after the meeting.
After senior’s lunch, which three weeks out of four is a hearty Latvian Frikadeļu, Skābeņu or Skābkāpostu zupa, there’s musical entertainment or a presentation. We shift Dad’s chair so he’s in line with the speaker and off-site Zoom screens. If there’s a lot of talking, Dad dozes off.
Right from the start I thought I’d have more insight into Dad’s dementia because of my own brain injury.
“No,” said Mom flat out. “He’s getting worse. You’re getting better.”
Her words were harsh and I didn’t want them to be true. But I still have some inside knowledge on brain malfunctions. I get it when Dad can’t listen to a speaker and pass me bread at the same time. I understand why reading music can be so exhausting. The brain is a complex organ. Dementia sucks.
There will come a time, most likely, when Dad won’t recognize me and won’t even talk. But for now Latvian seniors’ Thursdays, especially choir, are a godsend. For Dad. And for me.