Dad’s birthday last week. His first in the home that’s now his home. I visited, with wrapped gifts and a clutch of cards been sent to the address that was his last year. In the garden we open the envelopes together. One of his most important jobs as he became iller was to deal with the junk mail – remove the addresses; tear out the data. I re-show him this activity once I’ve too-loudly showcased the half-dozen greeting cards of sheds and boats and bottles of wine (‘Have the Best Birthday Ever!’ ‘Relax, it’s YOUR Day!’), and for a moment some memory in his fingers takes up the task – then quickly falls away… recedes… is clouded over. He stares at me, or rather at my shirt collar.
Inside, there’s a very kindly organised cake, with candles which he manages to blow out. I’m suddenly, selfishly aware that it’s not my coaxing makes this happen. At a nearby table, an old boy is chatting abstractedly but engagingly with a carer updating her paperwork. His low voice sounds beautiful. I miss me Dad just talking like that, I say to the girl (I don’t want to give names here). Dad can’t talk, or rather can’t form words. Apraxia? No matter – no medical assessor ever once saw fit to remark on it. No matter – it’s only the thing that keeps him far away. She makes a nice face, trained or raised in understanding. And then she says, Oh, we have our lovely chats, me and your dad. He gives me a high five – a big thumbs up – we have our own special conversations. Don’t we, eh? She throws this to him so well and I think he’s nodding and making a sound.
And this moment arrives when I’m somehow stupidly upset that they have their lovely chats, whilst he looks at me with a frowning silence which extends to not even meeting my gaze. Stupidly – that I should even for a second feel anything but glad he’s being cared for, by good people who make it their business to care, to look after others, and make new and near-impossible relationships.
The truth. That this home is now his home. His life. No power of ‘and’ exists for us. Every waking morning is another wave eroding what I cling to: not so much my loss of him, but the loss of us.
I lose count of the thank yous I dole out on this visit alone. Each sincere, unconscious, full of feeling – and with hindshight each an oar-stroke taking me further away from Dad. Thank you for the lovely chats, the high-fives, thumbs-ups, the walks to the gates. The cake. How you got him to smile for the photo.
This birthday is five years to the day since we all of us sensed the dementia for sure, and knew that this was happening.
Back in the too-hot car, already readying to phone news to Mum, I feel the undrivable clump in my back pocket, and I pull out the torn-off addresses from his birthday envelopes, which are now my job.