I’m remembering being inside the memory care unit where my Dad, Sunny, spent his last two years. He’d always been a walker, a hiker of trails and mountains and then, as an old man his wanderlust proved unsafe for him.
Settling him into this new place broke me open to crushing sadness and grief. Dad didn’t seem crushed. There was confusion, yes. But most of the time sitting together, talking quietly, my hand on his was enough. Thank you, hon. I’m so grateful for your help.
He’d notice a jar of daisies I’d brought from my garden and his joy was near rapturous.
Some visits I’d psyche myself into such dread, my whole body contracting around my fear of “these people” and what was my father doing in a place like this and the ultimate self-focused reaction – Dear God, what if I end up in a place like this?
There was my internal fear cluster and then I’d enter the community room and Dad’s face would light up at the sight of me (and Claire, who was my partner through those years). He’d forgotten many things but somehow held onto his children which was somehow crucial to my feelings of not having lost him completely. Next thing, I’d be sitting in a circle of chairs batting a green balloon over to Joe, WW II fighter pilot, or Carol, who always greeted me like we were long-lost friends, Gosh it’s been a while, Betsy.
Even very quiet Helen would play, gently tapping the balloon off her lap.
Somewhere in the mix, I got into the game wholeheartedly laughing and cajoling, rushes of joy when the balloon was saved from hitting the floor. For some brief precious time I was relieved of my frightened projecting head. And though I never completely relaxed into my father living there, or his growing old and frail, or some of the more serious cases who lived there with him, I came to love these people and balloon volleyball, and my father ever more deeply.
Instead of my usual no no, I can’t do this I cannot do this, it shifted.
I’m here playing balloon volleyball with
and my sweet father, Sunny.
The sun is streaming through the window.
illustration by Michael Collins