Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Power of Yes

It's getting harder to make jokes about my dad's Alzheimer's these days.
It's never really been funny. But we manage, as we do with most of life's heartbreaks, to find the funnier sides to it.

We particularly like the way he throws his money around. After years of being thrifty guy, he's got his wallet out every chance he gets, offering to buy my kids things they want but don't need, or to pay for my groceries as if I were still in college.

Or the quirky things he does. Like the time we went walking on the Equinox trails and he complained and complained about his underpants "feeling strange" until finally I made him step off the trail and drop trou, praying no one would come along and find us-- an old man with his pants down and a younger woman trying to straighten out his underwear. After having ignored his complaints for half a mile, like I would a toddler, I discovered his was not an idle complaint. He had on briefs and boxers together.

And the boxers  had somehow ended up around his knees.

Or the things he writes down on scrap paper but can't explain. Like  "intelligence + personality= important."

Or things he says. Like in the car in Maine just recently, when he responded to some upsetting news I was telling him by saying, "That's a bunch of birdshit!"

Then, in a moment of great clarity, he said, "I don't think I've ever said that before, have I? That's not what people say. A bunch of birdshit?" And I said, "No, Dad. I've never heard it before. I think you just made up your own brilliant expression."

Bird shit! It doesn't necessarily stink, but it's still super annoying. 

We have so many laughs throughout the day with my dad. We laugh with him. But we're often laughing at him, and he seems to know that, but he never gets upset. My dad has always been a fan of laughter. He likes to make people laugh.

But, just lately, the humorous side of things is harder to spot. He seems so.... vulnerable. And, I'm guessing, he feels vulnerable too. The other day he said something about being a baby. "But you're not a baby anymore," I said. And he said, "Yes, but I'm just as damageable."

Telling him where we're going, twenty times along the way, isn't what gets to me. What gets to me is seeing him, once an incredibly alert man, a conversationalist, at a loss for what to say because he can't follow the conversation. He's lost the thread. He's forgotten what we're conversing about.

And what gets to me, is seeing this once perpetually busy, restless man at a loss as to what to do next. This man who was never caught without a plan. Never to be accused of idleness. Never under remotest threat of gathering moss on any of his many surfaces. A moving target, his motion was his sanity. As long as he kept moving, doing, doing doing, he was safe from whatever it was he was hiding from.

And having heard the distress in his voice the day I stupidly asked him what his most powerful childhood memory was so I could write it in his grandfather book and one day give his memories to Esther and Isla, and he started telling me the story of his father's suicide when my dad was only five, and recounted a vivid memory of his mother howling and pacing on the sleeping porch, I can only imagine that running, constant forward motion, is much more preferable to ever, ever going back there. 

But now the movement has stopped. Lurched to a halt, unsettling all that was not bolted down with the abruptness of the transition. Yet it's not my father who is unsettled, it's us who love him. It's us who look at him and see the same man as always, yet do not recognize the docile aimlessness, the lack of certainty in his eyes. The idleness.

Yet his brain is not idle. He remembers so much-- like the Boy Scout law, which he recites at least once each and every time I see him.
"A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly,
courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty,
brave, clean, and reverent."

He gets a big kick out of the clean part. I'll have to ask him, now that I've just Googled it, if he remembers the Scout's Promise as well.
"On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight."

And, ever since he was in the hospital with five broken ribs, sustained last winter while cross country skiing, and they kept him on morphine for several days, he has developed a new quirk. You might call it a verbal tic.

And, so fitting with who my father has become, the master of gratitude, who feels blessed for  everything that comes his way, with the exception, perhaps, of rainy days,  this tic involves chanting the word "yes" as he makes his way through his day.

He sometimes says it with every step he takes, like a child learning to walk, "Yes, yes, yes, yes."
He says it when he's fixing himself breakfast, all alone in the kitchen. "Yes," he says, as he takes the milk carton out of the ice box. "Yes," he says again as he fishes a spoon out of the drawer. "Yes," he says when he reaches for a bowl in the cupboard.

And when he's about to do something tricky, like step across the boardwalks around Equinox Pond, or climb over a stone wall on his property in the woods. "Yes. Yes. Yes." he chants, as if the very word is what propels him. The word is his crutch. His cane. His gas pedal. His teddy bear. His pacifier.

That he's chosen this word, out of all the words in the world, fascinates me. As annoying as it is, mostly in its repetition and its foreshadowing of mental instability, it's brilliant really.

I found myself imitating him the other day, all by myself. It was soothing to say. Yes. Over and over, not letting any other thought, or word, enter your mind or cross your lips. You can't say yes without smiling. Whereas "no," forces the mouth into what feels and looks like the beginning of a frown.

Try it:
"Yes."
"No."

"Maybe, maybe, maybe" this is all going to be okay.