Treasured connections

I recognize Dad’s voice as I exit the elevator. He’s reading a Christmas story to the ninth-floor seniors. Some are slumped in wheelchairs. A few are asleep, resting their foreheads on the table in front of them.

Dad’s holding court, so to speak, because he’s king. He told me so a few days after he moved to his new home on the memory floor.

“I’m number one,” Dad announced proudly. Everyone’s listening. No one’s objecting.

How many people understand what my dad’s reading? I ask a nurse. Three, she says. One, two, three. But when the reading’s over, everyone applauds and Dad’s beaming.

My aunt Ausma, who worked in long-term care for 30 years, says it’s about more than understanding. I think back to my mom’s final days in hospital and know that’s true.

On Thursday and Friday, Mom said nothing. Then as we listened to Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and I said, just to have something to say, that I thought it was “Opera Quiz” time, Mom exclaimed, loudly and fervently, her final word, “Yes!”

I surreptitiously shoot some video of Dad, as I often do. I like to play back the videos, as I did yesterday. I watched the one that shows Dad crossing the street. It’s winter a few years ago, Dad’s walking toward the car, and I can hear my daughter Darija squeal: “He is! The cutest! Man! Oh, my goodness!”

I hang onto these.

Your father loves to read, the event coordinator whispers. I nod. He also loves–loved–to give speeches. Long, winding ones, always with some therapeutic advice. Always quoting Imants Ziedonis’s poetry, either in the original Latvian or in translation.

One of Dad’s favourite books, Flowers of Ice, was translated by the Canadian poet Barry Callaghan after he spent a few days onboard the 1985 Baltic Peace and Freedom Cruise. When I Google the cruise now, my first hit is a University of Latvia study on The Most Significant Political Initiatives of the Latvian Exile Diaspora. Next is a document, in Russian, about the KGB plan of agent-operational measures.

I mention the above, just like Dad’s black Jaunais Laiks tote bag, for context. JL was the first democratic political party established after Latvia’s 1991 renewal of independence. Dad was a staunch supporter, and that bag goes everywhere.

Most of the time the bag contains a few books, Dad’s choir music, two sets of eyeglasses and lots of pens. Today there’s also a photo of me, my four sisters and Dad’s 11 grandchildren. Both photos are about 20 years old. Are we more easily recognizable from back then, or are the photos just more familiar? (I use the qualifier “just” and it makes me cringe.)

Dad’s black bag is the one thing that he’d take if his house were on fire. Actually, if he were to finally get the chance to go to Latvia.

The bag’s contents constantly change. For a while, the bag was heavy with 20 copies of the Latvian magazine Ir. (Dad was also a staunch supporter of that.) Often it contains several toothbrushes and a shaver. Right now, the significant items are the photos I mentioned, sans picture framing glass. I don’t know why Dad removed it, and it doesn’t matter.

My mom’s photo is behind Dad’s bed, facing the wall.

I experienced a lot of angst about this Mom-after-death thing. Why wasn’t Dad talking about her? Even now, the answer is most often “She’s dead.”

Recently a friend called. He was distressed that his father, who also has dementia, has never mentioned his wife (my friend’s mother), who passed away half a year ago.

Trying to appease both of us, I say that seems to be a thing.

Tears stream down Dad’s cheeks when he sees me. “Šī ir dzīve,” he says happily in Latvian. “This is life.”

Last week, Dad lost his glasses. Then the event coordinator lost hers. When Dad found his glasses, the event coordinator found hers–in Dad’s room.

As Dad gets up from the table, he automatically reaches for the glasses in front of him. Tough luck: they’re swiped away before he can touch them. In fact, they’re not even his.

We proceed to Room 941, Val Gulens. Does Dad ever love that sign! Every time we go to his room, Dad points to the sign, reads it out loud and proudly points to himself.

There’s a pair of pants and some hangers on the floor outside Dad’s room. Why are these here? I ask Dad. He says he doesn’t like the pants and that they don’t fit. I wonder about that, but fortunately it’s not my job to convince Dad otherwise. Even if it were, I wouldn’t. Dad doesn’t like the pants. I leave them where they are.

Letting go has become a lot easier over the past few years.

Initially, when Dad wouldn’t answer a question or replied in a way that didn’t make sense, I’d take it to heart, push harder and often end up crying. When Dad said something out of line, I’d want to make sure he was aware of what he was doing. Now the most important thing is to not get stuck. Today, for example, my goal is to get Dad dressed in winter clothing, down to the car and over to my house.

As always, Dad’s wearing a suit, dress shoes and his Leonard Cohen hat. Dad doesn’t go anywhere dressed in anything other than a suit. Not even the room next door.

The alarms start ringing when we approach the elevators. Dad doesn’t notice and never questions why we squish into a corner, or why I place my hand over the wrist with the sensor.

Sunday dinners at our house are new on the agenda. Dad’s in high spirits and excited to be going out. The conversation is a jumble of words, although concrete nouns keep popping up. Convenience store. Real estate. Dollarama. Dad’s found a new way to communicate.

When we moved Dad out of the old family home, my daughters and I ended up appropriating significant furniture. To me, it’s just old teak I’ve known since childhood. For my daughters, it’s an über-cool, mid-century sofa and sideboards.

I never expected that this furniture would provide Dad with some comfort. When he enters our home, he points to the paintings and furniture. What is that? he asks. That.

It’s from your house on Oaklands Avenue, we explain. Dad doesn’t quite understand, but he happily nods his head. Yes.

It feels as though we’ve gotten Sunday visits down to an art. Dad gets comfortable in the kitchen or living room and conversations centre on just about everything.

Dad looks so like my dad. You can’t even tell he’s got dementia.

Dad’s always loved music, but now it affects him more deeply than ever. I seat Dad in front of the old Mac and click on Latvian Song Festival videos on YouTube. A music therapist recently told me that watching videos is more powerful than just listening.

Dad slaps his leg, weeps, sings along. When our dog wanders over for attention, Dad shoos her away.

We often suggest Dad nap before dinner. Even if he says he doesn’t need to, Dad usually falls asleep right away. When it’s time to eat, he’s first at the table, grabbing something–a slice of bread, a meatball. It’s just something he does now.

During dinner we hunt for treasures of connection. There are toasts and the clinking of glasses. Would you like mashed potatoes, salad, more meat? Yes, please. Yes. All that remains.

I want the dinners to feel natural. As if they’re just casual Sunday visits, nothing special. Usually, it feels as though we’re close to the mark, despite the massive prep and accommodation.

But of course, the dinners are more than just dinners.

When it’s time to leave, Dad says he’s not going anywhere. I say I have to walk the dog, and I promise we’ll do this again soon. How about Christmas?

12 thoughts on “Treasured connections

  1. Merry Christmas, Mara.

    Thank you for the wonderful gift of your writing. This is a beautiful tribute to your Dad. I loved reading it slowly a couple of times, remembering my Dad through the tears.

    Holidays are a melancholy time for me nowadays. Lots of looking back with gratefulness and fondness both to and for those now gone that shared such magic, especially at Christmastime. Looking forward, I am deeply happy for my kids, as I’m sure you are for your girls, but there is an emptiness too.

    For both of us, I deeply hope that fond memories bring our hearts warm smiles, even through the tears of sorrow and loss.

    Music is a blessing for me. Here is a little gift I received from a FB friend over in Scotland. Perhaps you might find a little rest in it as well.

    Merry Christmas, Mara. Cheers to you, and your Dear Mum & Dad!

  2. Lovely and so true…your family’s new reality. I visited Dian a few weeks ago and saw how things change, and then remember my own mother’s journey…

  3. You are such a gifted writer/ artist! I hang on each word, having known your family in it’s prime – when our family was in our prime. Our parents were doers, freedom fighters, inspiring community leaders. Now we take the reigns… trying to honor our parents through the way we lead our lives. You bring such light and deep love to your “be in the moment” approach to this part of your dad’s journey. What a tremendous gift you are giving to those who will come after you…. To those who will want to know about how you loved your father, and how you honored the beauty of the legacy of your family by sharing your feelings and observations. ❤️

  4. Dear Mara, thank you very much for your words about your father. Good to hear sensitive words about life going on despite dementia. Greetings from far Berlin. Wish you a wonderful time with all of your family Sigrid

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