I walked into my father’s room. He sat in his blue easy chair, wearing a maroon turtleneck and gray sweat pants. His hair and beard were freshly trimmed. He looked dapper, for Dad. And he was awake. A good day for a visit. But he seemed to be fussing with something in his lap. I got closer to see what it was and found him pulling at the skin on his hands.
“Help me get these off!”
“What? Those are your hands.”
He yanked at the skin on each finger.
“I’ve got to get these gloves off!”
“That’s your skin!” I tried to get him to stop pulling on it, but he brushed my hands away.
“Boxing gloves,” he said. “I need to get them off now.”
My father was 94 years old when this happened. As the years had slipped away, he slipped away with them. Our family transitioned month-by-month and year-by-year from a time when he joked about “incipient Alzheimer’s” to living in the grip of the advanced stages of the decidedly-not-incipient disease.
“Dad, please don’t pull on your skin like that. You’re going to hurt yourself.”
His caregiver for the day came in. I was relieved to see his hands come to rest, when his attention shifted to her. He looked from her to me, back and forth.
Then he turned to me, “Can you beat her?”
“Boxing? Do you think you can beat her?”
I had no recollection of how to address boxing questions from the Savvy Caregiver’s Class given by the Alzheimer’s Association, but I decided to play along.
“She’s a lot younger than me. And bigger.”
“But you’re tough. And fast.”
“Okay. I bet I could beat her.”
Dad was not much of a talker, except for the odd day when who knew what made the tangles in his brain twist in a way that rendered him downright animated. Like that day.
He waved his hands at us. “Well? Go ahead! Box!”
She and I exchanged glances. I stood up. She raised her fists and I raised mine. I did my best float-like-a-butterfly Muhammad Ali-style dance steps. We threw fake punches.
We sparred. Dad was firmly in my corner. He chuckled and egged me on.
Most days I saw recognition in Dad’s eyes, felt affection in the hand he reached out to me when I arrived. Some days he said my name. That day he cheered for “Deb.” Later, I would write that down in my calendar. I don’t know why it seemed important to know what day would be the last that he knew my name, but it did.
I was as close to my father as he would let anyone be, aside from my mother. He instilled the love of science in me and inspired me to become a geologist. I missed talking with him about geological work or him commenting on articles he’d read in Scientific American. I missed the Life Master in Duplicate Bridge. I missed the reader and movie goer. I missed the passionate traveler. I missed my father, though he was still there, sort of.
I went for a flurry of air jabs and my opponent succumbed.
“She beat me!” she said, “I better go rest up. I need to get your lunch soon, Sid.”
“She beat you?”
“She sure did.”
He smiled up at me.
Fists raised in triumph, I smiled back.
My father, by the way, had never been a boxing fan. Who knows why it was on his mind that day. Perhaps a research neurologist knows, someone who will help spare families the pain of Alzheimer’s in the future.
Maybe my father was pulling off those gloves because he was tired of fighting?
But most days, we just sat. Some days he slept through my visit. Some days he roused and gave me a smile. He often held the newspaper, his reading glasses propped on his nose, and I wondered what he saw in the words and pictures before him. Sometimes I held his hand and sometimes he held mine back. One day in March of this year, when I asked how he was, he said, “I’m happy to see you.” My heart sang. His face lit up when I walked into his room and he waved when I left.
So, I sat with my father, as long as he was here to sit with. At nearly 96 years old, he passed away peacefully in June. One of many things I’m grateful for – he knew me until the end.