Slipping away


“Friday, today’s Friday.”

“We just got here.”

As we pulled into the nursing home’s parking lot, I rehearsed my answers to questions I knew John would ask me, again and again and again during our time with him, just as he had during our last visit and just as he will during our next visit.

“We’re staying with Linda.”

“No, we’ll be going home on Sunday.”

I’ve known John for more than 40 years, actually it’s closer to 50.

I knew him first as the father of the young woman I was dating.

Then I knew him as the father of my fiancee.

And for the last 44 years I’ve known him as my father-in-law.

What I don’t know is how much longer he will know me and, more importantly, how much longer he will know my wife, her two sisters and brother, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

As you have probably surmised by now, John is living on the nursing home’s dementia wing, as the life he knew slowly slips away.

Questions about what activities he participated in yesterday, or what he had for breakfast today or if he even got out of bed to eat breakfast will stump John and prompt a quick, nervous laugh about having a terrible memory.

But John’s short-term memory, which is practically non-existent, somehow clicked into super-sharp focus recently as his 90th birthday approached.

He knew the date of his birthday, and he repeatedly pestered my sisters-in-law about having a birthday party.

He did remarkably well that day, remembering some names and faces without being prompted and others with just a little guidance.

And because John was enjoying the day so much, he spent too much time in the nursing home’s community room, became over-tired and lost the connection to his room.

Whenever that happens, he always asks, “How did I get here?” and “Who’s taking me home?”

Those questions underscore his short-term memory problem but can, luckily, be alleviated with a reassuring, “This is your home now, Dad.”

And that usually prompts him to say to me, “If you’ve got to be in a place like this, this is a good place to be.”

His long-term memory is better and we have learned some details about his life we never knew.

But he mainly fixates on a select number of stories we’ve heard countless times: his mother raising canaries and them flying around inside the house, riding the trolley with his grandfather, swimming with his siblings and friends and his dog Tim, his brother hitchhiking from Upper Michigan to Iowa and back with of all things a canary, getting day-old doughnuts for free from a neighbor’s basement bakery, going to school early to operate the linotype machine to start the printing process for school and community materials, doing shows with his dog that he taught to jump through a hoop, climb a ladder and perform other tricks.

John also remembers one long-term regret: Not having the ‘musical gene’ his brothers and sister all received. He tried playing an instrument, but, “I was tone deaf.”

When my wife was able to have long-distance phone conversations with her dad, he would always end them with, “Tell Tom I said hi.”

That always made me smile, and I would tell my wife, “We’ll know things are getting worse when he forgets to say hi.”

Well, that day came and now, even though John is always happy to see us at the nursing home, several times after we’ve walked into his room I’ve heard him quietly say to my wife, “I know that’s your husband, but I can’t remember his name.”

My wife reminds him, “That’s Tom.”

And I silently ask myself, “How much longer? How much longer will you know me … know us?”