An upbeat and heartwarming journal about how a father and his adult daughter overcome the challenges of dementia. Real life moments reveal vulnerability isn't limiting but liberating when love and respect are mixed with humor, adventure, exercise, good nutrition, hobbies and calm.
Dad has been living with us in southern California where almost everything grows year-round. He enjoys helping in the garden and it is a regular outdoor activity we share. One day while Dad was helping with some pruning, he discovered several snails crawling underneath leaves. He began to talk with them and even placed one in the palm of his garden glove to introduce the snail to me. Although snails are considered pests and I pluck them by hand and place them in the green waste, I too have admired them and even photographed them. It was no surprise when Dad took to the creatures. They are fascinating and Dad loves critters of all kinds. He has always had a quiet connection with most animals.
Since then, Dad is keeping a snail in his bedroom – well not really. It is an imaginary snail that is quite real to him. He calls him Buddy. Buddy is a rolled up brown napkin Dad found in his pocket after a lunch date with friends. Next to Buddy sits a tiny seashell – a saltwater snail. Apparently, the combination of the two items visualize for Dad as one of the garden snails. In case you are wondering, I had Dad’s eyes checked recently and clean his glasses daily.
It began with Dad showing me the brown round napkin snail and gently placing it on a shelf in his bedroom. Now, several times each day I hear Dad softly talking to Buddy. Recently, he has been asking me for bits of food to place for Buddy to enjoy. What is a daughter to do? I give him a little something and then go back and remove it later. It appears that Buddy is eating well. I love the tenderness with which Dad cares for his little Buddy and the comfort Buddy brings to Dad.
While we were out for a walk a few days ago, Dad noticed,
for the first time in more than a year of walks, a few snails crawling across
the sunny sidewalk. He picked them up, relocating the snails from the dry concrete
to the shady landscape nearby. If they
were inside their shells, he left them where they were. I was relieved it had
not rained the night before. There can be hundreds of snails in the
neighborhood in certain weather conditions.
As we came upon the last snail of the morning, I waited for Dad to gently grasp the shell and place it on a bush along the sidewalk. Instead, Dad said, “I will just give this one a little shade”. He bent over and created a shadow with his hand. What some of us might have interpreted as a black cloud was the Snail Whisperer providing protection from the heat of the day. After a minute – one long minute, I reminded Dad it was nearly lunchtime. He calmly moved the snail to a spot just under the leaves of a blooming Honeysuckle hedge and we finished our walk. Whew!
Coincidentally, I had been thinking about getting out my origami kit to see if Dad would enjoy making paper animals. I have decided to wait on that idea for a while. Who needs origami paper when you have a brown napkin?
Dad is barefoot wading in the water at our local beach. It is his newest favorite pastime in any weather to walk, collect rocks and shells, and watch the shorebirds and surfers. The other day he said, “Get your children and grandchildren down here on the beach. I wish I had gotten myself out there on those boards when I was a younger man.”
It hasn’t always been this way. In fact is has been a lifelong process. Dad has naturally been a fit muscular guy. He looked great without a shirt and in swim trunks which he wore without hesitation. Yet in our early teens my sister and I noticed he didn’t wear shorts. We talked with him about it and finally persuaded him to try the popular cutoff jeans around the house. He liked them and has worn shorts since the 1970s. But our job wasn’t finished. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that we convinced him to wear sports socks with his shorts. We reminded him how great his legs looked. Who knew it was that easy?
This past spring Dad arrived for an extended stay with us in southern California. During our regular walks on the beach he was always high on the dry sand wearing socks and shoes. Invariably he would get wet even though he tried not to. Then one day after watching us remove our shoes, he spontaneously took off his sneakers and socks and joined us along the waters edge. Now he loves it! Then another miracle happened. We bought him a pair of flip flops to wear with his shorts on the way to and from the beach. He loves them! We found a light weight pair with a soft toe insert and we stay nearby to avoid falls. But he really does great with them. It only took him until age 82.
We go to the beach every few days. If not he asks when we can “go to the water”. Dad fills his pockets with shells and rocks every beach walk. He displays them on trays and looks at his collection every day. If you visit us he will bring them out to show you. He has so many rocks we created an outdoor space for them in the garden. Dad especially enjoys the colored rocks and rocks with holes. He is particularly fond of a Chestnut Cowrie he found. We recently purchased a seashell identification guide for him.
Yesterday we packed our lunch and beach chairs and set ourselves right in the tide. He laughed as the water washed up around our feet. Then we watched the sanderlings scurry and the pelicans diving for fish. We combed the beach for shells and sand dollars. Dad has expressed many times how much he enjoys our time on the beach. We treasure it! But our work is not finished yet. We are still practicing knowing the difference between sand dollars and sea gull dollars.
Dad and I went to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We went because he did not remember having been there and always wanted to go. While we were waiting to check in to our cabin we decided to hike the Bright Angel Point Trail. The trail starts near the lodge and winds along sheer drop offs with dramatic views of the canyon. While we were hiking, Dad began to tell me how much he “hated this trail” sharing he hated it the entire time he helped build it. I was surprised but just listened. He explained that it was cold and snowing and he and all the workers feared they would slip and fall. I encouraged him to walk away from the edge and we continued along the trail. I asked him where he lived when he was working on the trail and he told me he drove to work from his home every day. He lives more than eight hours one-way from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. He also told me a good friend of his, one he worked with for years at his primary profession, quit after just one day. He was adamant about his experience, so I just hiked along with him in his moment. Along the way we stopped for a few sips of water under a shady rocky overhang. At this same stop was a couple visiting from India. Dad told them in great detail how he built the trail sharing how the stones were placed along the edge and about the dangerous work. The couple listened to his story with interest and became excited to meet him. I just stood there quietly watching and listening. After all, my mission was to give Dad a happy visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We had a wonderful evening watching the light sweep across the canyon at sunset and a glass of wine with dinner. Our cabin was just 20 yards from the edge of the canyon. We slept peacefully under the pines with a fire in the stone hearth. We woke early to watch the sunrise and enjoy the changing hues as much as possible. Just one day – a few hours together as father and daughter to be remembered…or not. A few days after we returned home, Dad called me and said he needed to apologize. I said, “Dad, you never do anything you need to apologize for.” He said, “I never built a trail in the Grand Canyon.” I said, “well, there is a couple in India telling their friends they met a guy that did.” We laughed and laughed. Dad still remembers our trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Sometimes we look at the photographs together, talk about how beautiful it was, and laugh about our adventure.
Photo: National Park Service
“A short trail leads visitors from Grand Canyon Lodge to a
viewing area at Bright Angel Point. Looking east, hikers can see Roaring
Springs Canyon, a major tributary to Bright Angel Creek and the source of
Roaring Springs. Deva, Brahma, and Zoroaster Temples are visible to the
southeast. To the west is The Transept, a large tributary canyon of the Grand
Canyon. The Colorado River, however, is hidden among the multicolored buttes
and rock outcroppings that fill the Canyon’s depths. Along the trail are
displays of marine fossils and crinoid fossils that illustrate the evolution of
the landscape and life through the millennia as revealed in the exposed layers
of the Canyon.” Bright
Dad has lived in the same home with the same neighbors for more than 40 years. When one of his neighbors decided to downsize, Dad snagged a few old golf clubs from the front lawn “free” pile. He called to tell me he was taking up golf and was practicing in the backyard. “I found a couple golf balls around the house!” he exclaimed. Concerned about the small size of his backyard and the six foot block fence, I asked Dad if he thought is was a safe thing to do. He said, “I opened the door of the garden shed for a target. The balls really make some noise when they actually go in.” Pleased that Dad was taking an interest in something new, during my next visit, I took him to the nearby driving range. Since golf was new to Dad, I took him to the pro shop, showed him the practice putting green and we watched a couple of starts from the first tee. He purchased a bucket of balls. We figured out the ball machine together. We had a great time just hitting golf balls. A few days later, Dad called to share he was just returning home from the driving range. He said, “I enjoyed it a lot. But I did get a bit tired and only hit about half the balls in the bucket.” I told Dad it was okay as long as he enjoyed himself. Then Dad shared, “Well, I just poured the rest of the golf balls into a box in the back of my truck. I’ll use them up the next time I go.”