Most times when I call, the phone just rings and rings. There are no phones in the patients’ rooms on the memory ward. The line rings at the nurses’ station, and if they have time – between distributing meals and administering medications and the myriad other life-affirming tasks they do – an angel might pick up the phone and then walk it into my father-in-law’s room. I’m often on hold for 10 or 15 minutes before I hang up and try calling again. I might finish my morning coffee while I wait.
On a good day, I speak to the operator only twice before I get through. Some days, after several conversations with the main switchboard, she gently suggests that I call back later. He’s on the East coast; he already has a three-hour head start, and as the day progresses, my father-in-law becomes increasingly disoriented. For him, time itself seems to take on an otherworldly quality, where present, past and future blur together. It’s better to talk to him in the morning. I hang up the phone and sigh.
On his 92nd birthday, I sat at the dining room table with the morning light filtering through the South-facing windows and my heart thumping anachronistically. It wasn’t so much that I was nervous to talk to him as it was that I worried that when I did get through, he would be more confused, less himself. I was afraid of losing him. He has been fathering me for 30 years – since I was 23 – and he’s the only dad I have left.
Even if he didn’t know what day it was, I did. The nurse answered pleasantly, and there was a scratching sound and a muted voice as she handed him the receiver. I heard his breath against the receiver, like a young child waiting for the phone to speak, and I said hello.
“Charlotte!” he said. He sounded so happy to hear from me.
I was relieved that he recognized my voice, that he still knew my name. “Happy Birthday!” I said.
He paused before asking, “What day is it?”
I told him.
“It’s my birthday!” he said, sounding as delighted as a child announcing the fact in a first-grade classroom. And we laughed together.
His spirits sounded good, even when he told me he didn’t know why he was in the hospital. “I feel fine, but they tell me I’m sick!” I could picture the way he turned his head and raised a bony shoulder into the shape of the question, wondering whether the entire hospital staff was one taco short of a combination plate.
We didn’t talk long. We never do. When my mother-in-law was alive, he often handed her the phone within moments of my calling, seemingly happy enough to know that I had called and yielding the rest of the time to his wife of over 60 years.
He seemed to remember all of my children, his grandchildren, including the stepsons I added to the mix when I remarried 10 years ago, although he was having trouble keeping track of the girlfriend, the fiancée and the wife. When I told him he was going to be a great-grandfather, it didn’t quite compute. I never ask if he remembers Sam. His only son has been gone nearly 14 years, and while I know that love never forgets, I do not know how dementia might torment my father-in-law’s heart, how fresh the loss might feel, how utterly lost he might become. If there is any kindness in dementia, I hope that it softens the edges of my father-in-law’s grief.
These days, he often reverts to the language of his young years, and I sometimes struggle to understand as he segues into Spanish. But mostly our conversations cover the same territory, so it doesn’t really matter which language we speak. He almost always tells me that my sister-in-law is coming to take him home that afternoon; his optimism is unflagging. It’s so sweet. And heartbreaking. It reminds me of another grandfather who, though blind, bedridden and wearing a flimsy cotton hospital gown at the time, leaned over to my then 15-year-old and asked him to “bust me out of this joint.” I almost wished I could hand them the car keys and see them off for one more adventure together.
Today might have been my 29th wedding anniversary, if Sam were still alive and all the other planets had aligned, and my kid who for years refused to say the words “dead” or “dad” now decides that he wants to go to the cemetery. The last time he visited was probably five years ago, and it was related to a school assignment; today it’s for reasons all his own. It’s hot and sunny, so I grab a broad-brimmed hat and off we go. When we arrive, he remarks that the grassy lawn that once appeared steep and expansive now seems a gentle green slope. I don’t think it’s only a matter of his physical growth; it looks smaller to me, too, and easily navigable.
We spend some time at Sam’s gravesite, and on the way home, we call Sam’s father from the car. Must be the luck of the grandchild, because we get through on the first try, and though his voice is soft and distant, my father-in-law sounds happy. He still knows who we are, and I am grateful. “Mi vida,” he calls my kid. My life. Which from a couple thousand miles away feels like a warm hug.
Because I’m not quite ready for this weirdly magical anniversary afternoon to end, I suggest we get ice cream. And instead of tasting several different options like I usually do, I choose vanilla, just like Sam would have done. We sit on a bench in the shade with our cones, and my kid turns to me with blue eyes sparkling. I’m expecting another insightful comment, another display of his progress along grief’s path, but instead he grins and says, “You have ice cream on your hat.”
There have been times over the last 14 years when the black pain of loss felt hard and heavy. Days when no amount of sunshine or sugar lifted our spirits. But today is not one of those days. Today, love feels lighter than laughter.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And ice cream!