I stare into those beautiful baby-blue eyes of his, set in a worn face under a full head of wiry white hair. I stare into those beautiful baby-blue eyes that must have charmed my mother so many years ago, back then set in a ruddy face without wrinkles under a full head of wiry red hair.
I stare into those eyes and I am surprised.
He’s looking at me for guidance, a straightforward demand: he is blankly waiting for my direction. This is the man who was sternly warning me half an hour before to wear my life preserver. This is the man who two hours before had been discussing The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis, over lunch. This is the man I saw so many Sundays in the pulpit in his suit.
These baby blues, this man, the blank: my father, the child. And he crouches slightly, like a water skier, and I ask him if he can’t stand up straight. “I am,” he says, continuing to lean back and holding my hands to keep up his crouch.
“Can I sit down now?” he asks, in the moment it takes me to muster a response.
I maintain a firm grip on his hands and facilitate his semi-pivot into the wicker porch chair which he had missed moments before to wind up bewildered on the floor. This time it is a successful landing, though his eyes still lock on mine in an unspoken question.
Embarrassed and overwhelmed by his helplessness, I leave him to stare off at the lake. He likes company; I shouldn’t leave. But I struggle with the inconsistency of this way of life. How can he remember the finer points of Calvin’s Institutes and control his calorie intake as he always has—and yet put ice on his plate instead of into his glass?
How can he warn me about water safety and forget how to turn the salt shaker upside-down? I am caught between fighting with my father for my own autonomy as I always have done, and caring for the child he has become. What if the man becomes the child midway through the argument? With whom am I speaking, the pastor or the patient?
He is sitting in the wicker chair now, a moment of inactivity to add to the others after decades of tireless service as a professor, pastor, and father. He is nodding off, or praying. It is sometimes hard to tell. This is retirement, the last sabbatical before he enters his well-deserved Rest. His eyes are closed and I can’t see those eyes which have given me so many piercing looks over the years. We’ve stared each other down so many times over the years, waiting to see who would yield: his will was always a formidable force against my own defiance.
Ah, but look, his eyes are open; he’s picked up a pen. The man is back again.
Losing my father to dementia has been one of the hardest things in my life. I thought, as he got more helpless, less “himself” that it would be easier. But it’s not.
The man is gone, and I’m still crying. It’s harder and harder.
And this is perhaps his greatest ministry of all, in that he is ministering from weakness–and not from strength… As he has done for so many years.
– Sister Still, daughter of a Dad with dementia