My father worked long hours as a spring assembler in a mattress factory. Every week night I would kneel on the living room couch, looking out the front window eagerly waiting for my first glimpse of him walking up the street. At my father’s first glimpse of me at the window, he would wave, and I would wave back, then dash to the door to open it for him.
That shared look of loving recognition would always make me feel truly seen and safe. Going shopping at Honest Ed’s, a nearby discount department store, during one busy Hanukkah/Christmas season, I was ogling the toys I would buy if my parents had the money, which they didn’t. When I was about to tug on my father’s coat sleeve to show him the latest model of the Chatty Cathy doll, I panicked noticing we had gotten separated. I frantically looked around. Seeing him, I shouted out for him. He saw me, waved and pushed his way through the thick mass of shoppers to my side, hugging me. I burst out crying, relieved to have him holding my hand, but the fear of separation and loss not gone yet.
When my father retired, my parents wintered in Fort Lauderdale. After my mother’s death, I went to visit, searched the arrival area for my father, but I couldn’t find him. The crowds grew thinner, but he wasn’t to be seen. I called him on his cell. Embarrassed, he mumbled an apology about getting lost on route to the airport. When he drove up, I reassured him not to worry about it, but I did, though we never talked about.
Back in Toronto a few months later, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I fell into the role of caregiver, and our relationship deepened. We were no longer only father and daughter, but companions. I began visiting a few times a week to help him at home, and keep him company, something that evolved into every day these last years.
Alzheimer’s was isolating. Without being able to drive, and in an area with poor bus service and his decreasing ability to navigate, he was stuck at home. And there was the stigma, shame, and the worst element of Alzheimer’s in the early stages—that vertigo-inducing awareness of what it is happening to you. Losing track in a middle of a story, repeating himself and being bewildered about how to do something like work the TV remote, he felt humiliated and terrified, eventually not with me, but often with other relatives and friends. Maybe they felt his embarrassment or their own. Maybe they lacked the patience and understanding, or maybe this was something they didn’t want to face. For whatever the reason, it left him with fewer and fewer visitors. So we went to movies together; we went for long walks; we played cards and read newspaper stories and then just the headlines out loud, and we sat together in the parks in the summer, and malls in the winter, people watching. My father still retained his Joan Rivers’ gimlet eye, delivering sharply funny commentary on people’s clothing and pretensions in colourful Yiddish slang. And he still retained his relish for life.
As his Alzheimer’s progressed, it was now my father looking at me for reassurance and comfort. Not all doctors talked past him, ignoring him as though he was dumb and deaf, but many did. The visitors he did receive didn’t know what to say to him, and he to them, mostly directing the stilted conversation at me as though I was a translator.
Their inevitable whispered first questions were “Does he still recognize you? Know who you are?” I would sigh, and say yes. This was followed by the inevitable rhetorical statement, “Such a burden!” which made me angry. Caring for him was hard, but everything I did made me appreciative of everything both my parents had done for me, which I had previously taken for granted. He had tied my braids, taught me how to drive, listened to all my stories, and encouraged and supported in me in my dreams, big and small.
All the same, I did want him to be able to recognize me. When he moved into a residence for Alzheimer’s care, I cherished the times when I came to see him in the afternoons and as I walked into the recreation area, seated across the room, he would immediately stand up, wave, and call out my name. We would go up to his room, play cards, chat in Yiddish, and I would bring him his favorite snacks.
Later, he knew me as a familiar person who loved him, greeting me with a shy smile and several kisses on my cheek. What only matters, someone said to me, the wisest advice I heard, is not that he knows you, but that you know him.
I knew my father, and he knew me. That knowing makes my memories of him, he died recently, I wish I could say consoling but they’re not, at least not now, they are just painful.