My father was 80 when he had a stroke. Up until then, he was pretty physically fit, maintaining a daily regimen that included walking and about 100 sit-ups. He spent summers at his apartment outside Boston, and wintered at his girlfriend’s place in Louisiana. Not a bad arrangement.
The day it happened, I got a call from a somewhat puzzled emergency room doctor. In his exam room was a strong, seemingly healthy older man who insisted he was living in 1920’s New Orleans. “Have you noticed your father being confused lately?” he suggested rather than asked. No, I told him. It had to have been a stroke. In a phone conversation just the evening before my father had been railing about the moral and economic failings of George W’s military policy. In fact, I said, making a lame attempt at humor, that could have been what gave him the stroke. The doctor wasn’t amused.
He did have bleeding in the brain, as it happened, and despite weeks of rehab, it became clear that my father had suffered significant cognitive impairment. His short-term memory was all but gone, he had no safety awareness, and most frustrating for him, he had expressive aphasia. Although he knew what he wanted to say, he was literally at a loss for words.
Up until he had the stroke, my brother and I had known our father to be angry and fearful, plagued throughout his adult life by worry and regret. He could perseverate about a slight or a perceived injustice for months or even years. His brooding and preoccupation often obscured his more positive qualities, and it was hard for my brothers and me to spend time with him.
And then, with the stroke, it changed. Untroubled by burdens of the past, my father was able to actually live in the moment. He smiled readily, gratefully received contact in whatever form it was offered, and relaxed enough to enjoy moments of pleasure. When I asked him how he was in my daily calls, he nearly always answered, “wonderful!” and meant it. He developed a craving for doughnuts, and because he forgot he’d asked, was always pleasantly surprised when we showed up with the little white bag on our visits. He sat on my brother’s front porch and helped hand out candy to kids on Halloween, and sat on a stone wall and threw snowballs with me at Christmas.
Despite his aphasia, my father sometimes managed to say it just right. After an impromptu pizza party with my niece and me (highlighted by the three of us mangling the song Bad Boys), my father struggled to express himself. “I…had…such…joy!”
Not long after, as I told him about a work dilemma, he waved his hand. “You put in front of you …what should go behind you.” When I find myself fretting nowadays, I remember his words.
In Neil Young’s concert film “Heart of Gold”, he refers to his father having Alzheimer’s Disease at the end of his life. What he says next is surprising: “You know how it is when you get to see your family member finally living in the moment”. We typically think of losing memory as only a bad thing, but it can be a release of sorts, and a settling into the present.
This photo above was taken on a day my father and I were feeding ducks at the pond down the street from his nursing home. His teeth had gone missing, but not his sense of humor, and try as I might to get him to strike a ‘serious’ pose, he couldn’t stop laughing about his toothless state. I laugh every time I see the picture, and am happy I have a visual reminder of the more carefree person my father became.
If you’re interested in other perspectives on memory loss, you might want to read “Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words” a lovely memoir by Kate Whouley. I also recommend a wonderful short film, “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter.”