My aging father's confusion and disorientation make us more alike than ever.
by Frank South
At the end of my last post, I was giving my overwhelmed and confused 87-year-old father a haircut in his room at the rehab center near my parents’ house in Delaware. My dad had suffered a stroke and skull fracture and I was up from Georgia to help out for a couple of weeks. Due to my attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) and other comorbid conditions, I’ve been overwhelmed and confused most of my life. But I’ve never had to cut my way out of mental brambles as thick, suffocating, and unrelenting as the ones my father has been trying to hack through every day since his brain surgery.
A week later at the rehab center, I notice my dad seems anxious. I show him a notice I’d typed up to let potential caregivers know his family and relationship particulars, as well as the fact that he was a WWII Ranger veteran, has a Ph.D., and was a prominent physiology professor. I’d also asked the doctors and aides to please call him “Dr. South,” as he was through his professional life, to help him remember who he is.
My dad brushes the document away with a disinterested grunt and turns away in his wheelchair, his shoulders scrunched up tight. I tape the notice above his bed and decide to play barber again, this time shaving my dad's face with his electric razor. This offer of help he accepts. As his shoulders drop some of their tension, he closes his eyes, smiles, and tilts his head back as I buzz his neck and chin.
“I brought some new polo shirts today that Mom got for you,” I say. “We’ll put one on before we go to lunch.”
“It makes me nervous, Trey,” he says, using my family nickname. It reassures me to hear that he knows who I am, that I’m his son.
“What does?” I ask.
“What do you think? All this fuss. My wedding,” he says.
“Dad, you’re already married...”
“Balls,” he says, irritated. “My mother bought me a shirt.”
If I can remind him gently that by mom, I mean my mother, not his, he might calm down and remember. “Your wife is Berna Deane, my mother...” My father pulls my hand with the razor away from his face and fixes me with a fierce look that burned into me every time he caught me lying as a kid.
“Stop it,” he hisses at me. “No more lies. I have to trust you, understand?”
I put the razor down, touching his face. “Yes, I understand. I do. You can trust me -- I promise.”
“A man can’t marry his mother. It’s not right.” His point made, he relaxes and laughs. “And the Army would have one hell of a fit.”
Now, I lose track of time -- all the time, always have -- and I’m never sure what day it is. Words, numbers, and names of people and things vanish and reappear at will. My brain is unruly and uninterested in the day-to-day world, but even so, I know who and where I am when I wake up in the morning.
With Dad smiling at me as I put away the razor and help him into his new polo shirt, I realize that that’s no longer the case for my father. For him, confusion has grown in his brain like a hungry jungle choking off every thought he has and everything he sees and feels with a terrifying and unrelenting uncertainty. It has taken complete control and distorts and breaks the past and present into unglued bits that fall away, then reform, shift, and fall away again, just out of sight.
Dad’s mood shifts again as we rolled toward the dining room. “You need to get me out of here, Trey,” he says. “This is a mental hospital.”
“It’s only until you’re better,” I say. “A little while longer.”
“Let’s go home now,” he says. “I don’t belong with these people.”
“Now,” Dad says in his most commanding voice. “Get my things and take me home.”
I step around to the front of the wheelchair and get on one knee to face him. “I’m sorry, Dad, I can’t. Not yet.” He looks at me. His fierce, angry eyes soften with understanding. He pats my hand.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I understand.” I smile, relieved. He smiles back and says, “We need passports.”
The doctors and therapists tell us that recovery takes time and that with help, Dad has a chance to come back to the rest of us in the real world. But as I see him exhaust himself -- chopping through shadows until he finds a clearing where he can rest, where his life finally holds still and makes sense for a minute, whether it’s 1943, 1963, or 1983 -- I don’t think I should explain to him that he must be confused. Not every time. It’s just not right.
Dad leans forward, energized. “This pissant ship sails on the tide and if we don’t have passports, we’re stuck. You need to get on this right away. We have to get back home. I’m good and sick of Europe. How about you?”
“I never liked it that much in the first place,” I say.
“Right, too many Europeans,” he says. “Nothing they say makes sense. You better get a move on and see what can be done about our papers."
I stand to leave. An aide approaches to roll him the rest of the way to the dining room.
“Will do,” I say. “Don’t worry, though. We’ll get back home soon.”
The aide is just a few steps away as Dad turns to her and says in an odd French accent, “Mademoiselle, un petit moment.” She stops and he looks back at me with a conspiratorial wink. “I know we will, son,” he says. “I trust you.”
Even though my ADD/ADHD-related problems are insignificant compared to his, we develop a father-son confusion connection as the days roll on -- bewildered buddies rolling our eyes at the clearly unhinged world around us. There is trust between us that we both treasure and that I believe gives my dad some strength for his constant struggle to regain mental footing. But it’s a trust that’s fleeting in our imaginary world, and just by keeping one foot in the real world as his advocate, a trust that I will likely soon betray.