He says he looks like an animal, the gray hair on his cheeks has grown so long and thick.
I pull a chair next to the kitchen sink and he sits, leaning back to put his head on the counter. I smooth shaving cream over this face I’ve known all my life — his planed cheekbones, the nose I wish I’d inherited, the deep grooves on each side of his mouth. I watch his eyes close and his shoulders drop as he feels my touch.
I place the blade on his left temple and start to scrape down his cheek. The sharp metal cuts at the gray stubble, clogging with the hair, the cream, the dead skin. My father pushes his tongue into his cheek to firm its surface, a movement so hardened by habit it requires no memory. His blue eyes open and smile, shut again.
I rinse the razor, apply more shaving cream. His tongue moves to the inside of his lower lip and my scraping follows. And slowly, we travel around his face in a duet of scratching sound and movement.
We begged my father to grow a beard when we were kids. Beards were dashing, cool, rakish. But no, he said. Not my thing. Morning meant a shave. Even when we were camping on my grandparents’ farm or he was skiing at Tuckerman’s Ravine, he hung up a little mirror, took out his razor, soaped up his face and shaved off his whiskers. He’d go without coffee before he’d go without a shave.
His mind has released all of this now. At first, the memory lapses seemed ordinary. He’d lived alone for years and was used to caring for himself. He spent his days “on the property,” as he called the yard work, chopping wood and tending to the vegetable garden at the house he’d built himself from stone. He was still cooking, cleaning, going to appointments. He was still driving to visit my three siblings and me in other states. And then, he wasn’t.
The phone rang one evening, while I held dinner for his increasingly late arrival. A woman, a complete stranger, told me my father was lost. More and more confused about where he was in his drive from Vermont to Connecticut, he’d stopped at the gas station where she worked and asked to use her phone. She put him on. When I asked him where he was, he didn’t know.
I gave him directions, and my father made it to our house that night. “Must have been low blood sugar,” I told myself as he ate two servings of dinner. “Must have been confusing driving in the dark. Must have been fatigue.” And it was, but it wasn’t.
Now memories are leached from his brain so quickly I never know what might still be there — or what I can trust. At dinner one night, he mentions the time he’d spent in England during WWII. His memories of the war have always been among his sharpest, and I sometimes wonder if it was when he’d felt most alive. He’d been in the ski troops, a member of the 10th Mountain Division, doing what he loved most: skiing, camping and living outdoors in the company of men who loved it too.
But England? He’s never talked about England before except to say he regretted never having been there. Now he says he has. Is this true? Has secret finally come unglued from mission? He’d been decorated during the war, but he always kept silent about combat. He’d never told us why he had a little box of medals in his desk drawer. Had he been sent to England for some reason?
I don’t think so. I think this is memory tangling with what might have been. But I am forced to realize that if I’d ever had a chance to know, it’s now gone.
He’s on a different kind of march now, one he’s had no training for. He forgets names, then faces; he forgets to put on his underpants. But when we go for a drive in his town, he can tell me there’s a house just up ahead and around the corner and that’s where we will need to turn, and he is right. He forgets his neighbor’s name, yet when I mention that my son is rowing on his college crew team, he remembers that his own father did so, too. And each time a memory surfaces, I think perhaps this is as bad as it will get, perhaps he will stop sliding now, maybe he can win this lottery. But when he welcomes me at his front door, a full beard on his face, I realize he isn’t coming back.
Now I wash the last of his whiskers down the drain. I take the towel, rinse it in hot water, and hold it to his smooth, pink skin. I gently wipe away small dabs of shaving cream, clean around his ears. His blue eyes, the eyes I did inherit, open and focus on mine. “Thank you, Bear,” he says, calling me the only name he has ever used for me.
I, at least, am still here.
What is this disease that has taken hold of my father’s mind, leaving his body still strong and fit? I know the answer even without a doctor’s visit, but his general practitioner sends us down to the Veterans Administration Hospital in White River Junction, Vermont, to confirm it.
There my father meets with a pretty dark-haired psychologist. Seeing her, his eyes twinkle and he bends his tall self toward her as he says how nice it is to meet her. She ushers us into her office and asks about his general health, why we’re here, what he’s had for breakfast. My father twinkles some more, sidles around her questions, looks at me as he says, “I had the same thing I always have,” without identifying what that thing actually was. She asks what medications he’s on. “None,” he says, and he is right. At age 81, he has no physical ailments. Moments before, a nurse had told us that he has “the blood pressure of a teenager.”
Now the psychologist explains that she’ll be asking him some questions. He’ll be taking the mini-mental-state exam, or MMSE, to test how well his everyday mental skills are operating. He’ll also take the mini-cog test. He’ll need to name three common objects he’d been told about a few minutes earlier. And he’ll have to draw a clock with all the numbers in the right place and its hands showing the time the psychologist has told him to illustrate. Now I am asked to leave.
When it is over, I learn officially that my father has dementia. His clock’s numbers are askew on the shaky circle he has drawn; its hands sag and droop. He can’t remember the objects or recall much of the conversation he has been having with his doctor. There are no signs of a stroke, head trauma, diabetes, thyroid abnormalities, vitamin deficiencies or the many other problems that can lead to confused thinking or memory issues. His brain cells are simply not speaking coherently to one another. The neural pathways that used to help him store information and make memories are breaking down. Messages that might once have made it to the hippocampus, the memory and learning center of the brain, now get lost on their way.
The dreaded Alzheimer’s isn’t mentioned. There is no way to know whether my father’s brain is developing Alzheimer’s characteristic plaques and tangles, protein formations that damage and kill nerve cells. It would take an autopsy to diagnose that. But it doesn’t matter; the treatments are the same. He is prescribed a drug that can’t cure dementia but may bring its symptoms to heel, at least for a short time.
Once dementia is diagnosed, the average life span is eight to ten years. Eventually, right on schedule, this disease will kill my father. And before it does, he will become physically and mentally more fragile. Eventually he must leave his beloved house. In fact, he will forget about it. He will move to a memory care center, one of “those places” he always said he would rather die than call home. He actually likes it, although he does have one complaint when I visit him. “I gotta tell you, Bear,” he says one time, stopping his walker to look me in the eye. “Some of the people in this place are crazy.”
He may be losing his memory, but he never loses his mind. All throughout, he remains himself — kind, a bit reserved, affectionate, dignified. If anything, dementia distills him to his essence. His twinkle never goes away; women still think he’s heavenly. He receives invitations from admirers to the facility’s “regular” dining room, for residents without memory loss, until he forgets about forks and spoons and starts to eat with his fingers. When I take him to the bank so we can arrange my power of attorney, he shakily signs his name. Two weeks later, he can’t do it at all.
He begins to sleep more and more. But his love of the outdoors and his yearning to be what he has always called “out and about” remains. When I arrive for a visit and his eyes open, his first question is, “So what are we about today, Bear?”
I have friends whose parents forget them. That doesn’t happen to me. I am one of the very lucky ones. I stay with him until the end.
Brie Quinby is a Connecticut-based writer and editor.