My Father-In-Law Isn’t My Father-In-Law Anymore
At least, he doesn’t realize he is
Joke all you want to about the dreaded in-laws, but I adore mine. When I first started dating my husband over 32 years ago, I was a little nervous about meeting them, but from the moment I was introduced, they treated me as if I were already in the family. In fact, they’ve always treated me like one of their daughters, and I’m quick to tell people that my in-laws are kinder to me than my own family — and I say that in complete seriousness.
In some families, the grandmother is the one the kids gravitate toward, because she has goodies and hugs and ice cream and fun, and the grandfather is usually left to sit off to the side, an observer of the children’s affection going to the one who’s willing to play games with them.
Not so with Gramma and Pop.
Oh, sure, if the kids wanted snacks, Gramma was the one to hit up.
She would make special PBJs for them with the crusts cut off — something we parents always rolled our eyes at and told the kids not to get used to having — and she was a bona fide quick-draw with the ice cream scoop, claiming there was always room for a treat that could “fill in the cracks.”
But Pop . . . the kids all wanted to hang with him, because he had the coolest toys. He had a workshop, and he’d let them use real hammers with real nails stuck in real wood pieces, because he kept extras around for just such occasions. He’d find an old piece of 2x4 and drill holes through it to insert thin metal rods. Then he’d root around in a box of game pieces that had long-ago lost their game boards, attach four checkers as wheels, draw some flames on the sides with a Sharpie, and boom. Instant hot rod for the littlest ones to roll around the floors.
When Pop wasn’t in his workroom, he could be found sitting at the kitchen table, sketching action scenes for our boys.
They’d tell him what to draw, and then he’d add to it as they described what should be happening, creating a blur of motion with his pen or pencil . . . knights jousting, pirates shooting cannonballs, you name it.
The grandkids went through a host of “Pop” nicknames: Annie the Pink. Fuffer. Kelly Bean. Ellie the Purple Chicken. Max-a-Million. Mr. Peepers. Fudge. They loved every new variation.
He was quick to pull off a good joke, like the Christmas he took an old, smelly, much-ridiculed zebra blanket, cut it up, and made “special” gifts for each of his own adult children. It was no surprise to him that the following Christmas he received a zebra Snuggie. And my husband still has his Very Special Zebra Toolbelt hanging over his own workbench — in the garage, of course, because it still smells, a decade later.
He and my mother-in-law had a good marriage, full of affection, smiles, and hand-holding.
My sisters-in-law were all close to their dad, quick to share a giggle or a hug with him. It was all too easy for me to enjoy that same closeness with the man who was so unlike my own father. And hey, how could I not love the man who taught my husband how to treat his wife?
The onset of symptoms was almost unnoticeably slow.
A little bit of inattentiveness here, a disconnect in conversation there (usually attributed to “Pop hearing”, a.k.a. “we had five children in six years and I learned when to tune them out”), a forgotten something or other, a word that just wouldn’t come when summoned — it all started to connect in our minds as events weren’t so few and far between anymore.
My mother-in-law noticed it first, but — not surprisingly in situations like this — was one of the last to recognize how intrusive the symptoms had gotten. Seeing him every day, she was making allowances she wasn’t even aware she was making, prompting him when he couldn’t finish a sentence, reminding him to do this or that, chalking off a lot of it to him getting older. Even at age 85, he was slowing down a little but still giving off the vibe of being in his early 70s.
By the time it was clear to all of us that he needed to see a doctor, the official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was more a sad confirmation than a shock.
Part of the long delay in getting the disease recognized was that he gave the appearance of having everything together, and the change in him was only revealed with extended exposure. A huge eye-opener for my mother-in-law came during one appointment when the doctor told her she wasn’t allowed to answer for Pop or prompt him in any way. During that visit, he couldn’t come up with his birth date or the year he graduated high school.
Since that visit a few short years ago, the progression of the disease has seemed to snowball. When my husband babysits his father on occasion, he is sometimes himself — Tim, Pop’s son — and sometimes Pop’s brother, or “Tim, that guy who sits here with me while Gig goes out for hours and hours, and who knows when she might even come back?”
When my husband gets home from those visits, my question often defaults to “So who was Tim today?” Sometimes hurtful things have been said, like the time he told my husband that his neck hurt, “Because you kept yapping about yourself and wouldn’t shut up.” And even though my so-not-yappy husband knows his conversation (most likely a single sentence) didn’t cause his dad’s neck to hurt, it still hurts him to have those words spoken. One visit will end with “I’m glad you came over today, Timmy,” and the next time, my husband will hear “Thank goodness he’s going home” as he walks out the door.
His mental processes are often like those of a toddler.
He’ll ask every five minutes when “she” will be home, pacing nervously while looking out the window for my mother-in-law’s car. He shows visible relief when she returns, yet becomes easily angered that she’s “always bossing” him around by making him take his medicine, or stopping him from turning on the stove burners and furnace because he’s cold with three layers of clothing in July.
He spent hours one evening, worried when she was taken to the emergency room for an odd illness. He was unable to sit still or go to bed until she was brought home, yet was on the verge of a quiet tantrum the next day when we all popped in to check on her. Nobody was paying enough attention to him, and it was no secret he was not happy about it.
He no longer recognizes us the majority of the time.
The daughter he spends time with is sometimes referred to as his sister. When one of the grandchildren is mentioned (all adults now), he always asks, “Who?” He’s pleasant to us until he decides it’s time for us to go away. His “I’m ready to go home,” answered by my mother-in-law’s “We are home,” is often followed up with, “Then when the hell are all these people going to leave?”
He’s unpredictable in his confusion.
He flounders for words, and sometimes he gets frustrated when he’s aware of it. Other times, he’ll say something like, “I was [gestures] the dishes down there near the beach,” and eventually it’s determined that he was pulling weeds in the backyard garden. Hand motions go a long way toward accurate interpretation.
There are times he can’t be shaken or distracted from whatever’s on his mind, which makes any time away from the house a real crapshoot. We meet on Mondays for lunch, always at noon, always at Applebee’s because it’s only a half-mile from his house and he will tolerate going that far from home for a short while. My mother-in-law needs these times for her own sanity. One week, he became fixated on a woman in a booth near us — he kept motioning to me that he couldn’t believe how wide her face was. Every two or three minutes, he’d look at me, make a “wide” motion with his hands on the sides of his face, and point toward her.
Another time, he kept muttering to my husband about how “that girl” kept staring and he was going to get up and ask her what her problem was. My husband realized “that girl” was the hostess, and she was keeping an eye on the waitresses and tables, doing her job and minding her own business. Somehow, Tim was able to distract him until the food arrived.
Late one night, my mother-in-law was startled to hear a knock on her front door, and even more startled to find a neighbor — with Pop — on the stoop. He’d climbed out a small bedroom window (at least five feet off the ground) to get help because he was convinced there was a man moving about in the house, and he wanted Gig to be safe. She’d never heard a thing, and was sitting only two rooms away. It’s a miracle that he didn’t break an arm or his neck getting out the window and to the ground. A miracle that he made it to the neighbor’s. A miracle he was okay overall.
He’s not my father-in-law, but he’s not her husband anymore, either.
It breaks her heart to hear him call her “Mommy” when he’s sitting with her in the evenings. When he’s surprised that she’s his wife, because his wife is Gig, who apparently is not her that particular night. When he continually asks what time Chuck is coming home, and she has to remind him once again that his brother Chuck died more than 25 years ago. When he says he just wants to go home, and is sad and confused when she tells him they are home and that they’ve lived in that particular house for almost 40 years.
On her birthday last month, he told me there’s no way she was 86 now, “because I’m only . . . how old am I, anyway?” When we told him that he’s now 88, he kept mouthing the words in disbelief — second only to his frequent disbelief that he could possibly have five children.
My mother-in-law deals with anger and harsh language from a man who was never like that in their 63 years of marriage. She deals with the guilt when she allows herself to get angry with him, figuring he won’t remember the incident anyway, because deep down, that’s not her style either. She wrestles with the thought of placing him in a nursing home and has determined to keep him with her as long as he shows a glimmer of recognizing her at least part of the time.
He’s not my father-in-law who was quick to hug, giggle, work a puzzle with me or help with a house project. He’s not my husband’s father who came to the rescue when our car — full of babies and gifts — died in the snow, hours from home — on Christmas night.
He’s not Pop, the grandfather who built LEGO creations even when the kids weren’t around, rocked and walked every baby into a solid naptime, or gave each child a sack full of pennies whenever his coin jar filled up. He’s not the Pirate Pop who secretly buried Gramma’s old costume jewelry in our woods, and then painstakingly drew a weathered-looking treasure map on brown paper for the boys to follow.
He’s none of those things anymore. But he was all those things and more, and that’s what I choose to hold onto.
We don’t know what the future holds. At what point will we be forced to make the decision of whether he remains in his home or goes to a care facility? We may not have all the answers, but in the end, whether he recognizes us or not doesn’t really matter. We know him. And we know who he was — and that, ultimately, is who he’ll always be.