Mike Blackwelder Senior, my dad, is dying. Not in the general we’re-all-dying sense but in the specific stage-four-bone-cancer way. I’m just off the phone with my mother and it’s been confirmed with a second opinion. When mom told him the news, his response was, “Okay. Can you get me Tim Horton’s now?” When mom told me, I laughed.
Some explanation is required so you don’t think me cruel. For those not from Canada or the northern US, Tim Hortons is like Dunkin’ Donuts. Though making the comparison up north is grounds for being disowned, divorced, or excommunicated. The other thing I should probably explain is that my dad has been in a slow decline for about fifteen years.
When a loved one has dementia, it can be hard to tell the person you loved from the new person they’ve become. It’s probably nearly as disorienting for us as it is for them–to have someone you love slowly and involuntarily change their personality. Fifteen years ago, dad had an episode diagnosed as delirium. He walked away from the house he’s lived in for the past fifty years, went up the street, around the corner, and into a random house. He sat down on the couch and, to the strangers who lived there, insisted that he owned the place and they were trespassing. Eventually, the police had to remove him. They were professional enough to understand what was going on and since he wasn’t violent, they escorted him until the found the correct address and my mother. After a trip to the hospital and a lot of testing, the doctors found out that he had a urinary tract infection and a tumor on his kidney.
I had no idea that problems with the human renal system could affect the brain. Did you know that a urinary tract infection can cause delirium? I’ve come to learn that it happens more frequently with older people and it’s even more common when the person already has dementia. After a solid round of antibiotics, he wasn’t completely back to normal but was good enough to go about the process of addressing his kidney cancer.
Between the home invasion and kidney-ectomy, dad was in a doctor’s waiting room with my mother. He’s always been a pacer and this was a particularly long wait. The office was fairly upscale with modern decor and a big salt-water fish tank for patients to look at. Dad paced right over to the tank and shoved his arm into the cool water up to his elbow, coat and all. Mom rushed over like she must have when my brothers and I did something stupid, yanked his arm out, and reflexively asked, “What do you think you’re doing?!” Dad deadpanned. “Trying to catch a fish.” He’d always been a joker with a dry wit. He had a ready smile but wasn’t quick to laugh. When he did laugh, he sometimes had trouble stopping and I remember him rocking on the couch, holding his stomach with tears streaming down his face.
When mom told me the fish story later, we both laughed with something less than real humor. You know that feeling when you’re on a car trip to the Grand Canyon with your spouse and you both hear a loud bang under the hood? You look down, expecting rapid deceleration and lots of red warning lights on the dash but nothing happens so you look at each other, shrug, and laugh. It was that kind of laugh. Mom and I were mostly hoping that everything would eventually be okay.
After dad had his kidney removed, there were a lot of ups and downs culminating in the eventual diagnosis of a form of non-Alzheimers dementia. Like many families, we had a collective release of things-make-so-much-sense-now instead of sadness. I was able to look at the fish tank with a degree of real humor. I wanted to believe that he was still as silly and full of joy and that he’d just had his filter removed.
There were other incidents over the intervening years that supported the belief. My personal favorite is the career story. Some important background–for forty years, my dad worked in a grocery store as a butcher. A couple of years ago, he was in a rehab facility after a bad fall and his occupational therapist asked him what he used to do for a living. Without missing a beat, he said, “I was a ventriloquist.” and talked out of the corner of his mouth pretending to throw his voice. He must have been pretty convincing because the therapist asked mom if he really was a ventriloquist. When mom told me, I was nearly on the ground and may have even been rocking on the couch with tears streaming down my face.
Over the past year, he’s been on a steady decline. Very recently when mom was at a low point, she said. “He doesn’t even smile anymore. I miss his laugh.” More than any of the failing health conversations, this hit me hard. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.
So, at this very moment, I need to believe that upon hearing of his terminal cancer diagnosis, dad’s request for coffee and donuts is that bright joker poking through the dark of his condition. I need to believe that he understands he’s going to die soon and that he’s choosing to make the rest of us laugh.