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Lifelines: Long-Distance Honey

C. Saphir

My mother talked about the fall as though it was a freak accident, but I was panic-stricken. My father was still driving!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

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I was the first one to notice that my father was slipping. 

Or at least I was the first one to say it aloud. He himself kept insisting he was fine, and everyone around him wanted so badly to believe it that they found ways to explain his every lapse. He left the car running when he came inside? He must have been preoccupied. He made Havdalah instead of Kiddush? Senior moment, isn’t that funny? He went to the grocery store for milk and came home with chili peppers instead? We all forget what we went for sometimes, don’t we?

My father had always been so vibrant, so dignified, so capable, that no one — least of all my mother — was willing to admit he was getting old. Physically, he was still in good shape: He stood straight, he walked briskly, he even rode his bicycle sometimes. But he was 70-something, and even if his body wasn’t showing signs of aging, his mind was.

I saw it clearly, but no one else did. Maybe it was because I lived in a different city, hundreds of miles away, and only saw my parents a few times a year. Or maybe it was because I inherited my father’s down-to-earth, get-it-done nature, while my three siblings were more like my mother: dreamy, artistic, passive.

Part of me wanted to hide my head in the sand like everyone else, but I knew that someone had to face reality. Tempting as it was to be lulled into their complacency, I pushed myself to do what had to be done.

“I think Abba has dementia,” I told my younger brother, Manny, who lived closest to my parents.

“No, he doesn’t,” Manny argued. “He’s just forgetful sometimes.”

“Well, what do you think dementia is?” I challenged him.

When my father fell off his bike, I begged my mother to get rid of it. But she wouldn’t. “It’s no big deal, Etty,” she assured me. “He didn’t even get hurt.”

“He didn’t get hurt this time,” I said. “We don’t want there to be a next time.”

The next time, he wasn’t on his bike when he fell. He was walking to shul. This time, he broke his ankle.

My mother talked about the fall as though it was a freak accident, but I was panic-stricken. My father was still driving! The thought of him blanking out at the wheel gave me nightmares.

I made him an appointment with a geriatric psychiatrist, and I flew in especially to take him to the appointment, knowing that neither he nor my mother would go to the appointment otherwise. I was the only one who was not shocked by the diagnosis: vascular dementia, a form of dementia caused by lack of oxygen to parts of the brain, often caused by a series of “silent” strokes.

Even if I wasn’t surprised by the formal diagnosis, hearing it from the doctors was devastating. How I envied my mother and siblings for having been in denial for close to a year after I read the handwriting on the wall. They had my father for a year longer than I did.

Being in such a different place from my mother and siblings, I couldn’t share my pain with them. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 685)

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