My father died from complications of dementia in 2004. Lately, I find that I am on the lookout for signs that indicate I am also getting dementia.
The big problem with getting dementia is that, after you have it, it’s too late. You won’t recognize the signs that tell you you have dementia, because you will already have it, and at that point even if everyone tells you you have it, you won’t believe them because… well, you know.
One reason it took our family a long time to realize my father had dementia is that people with dementia are often cranky and irrational. (They can’t help it.) And since my dad was already cranky and irrational much of the time, the diagnosis was harder to make.
Signs that the sands are trickling
Here are some recent occurrences that have me worried:
One recent morning when I went to the grocery store, I had to take my husband’s car. When I got out of the store, laden with my bags, I looked for my car where I thought I had parked it. I even remembered thinking when I parked how I had gotten a really good parking space, close to the doors, for a change.
But a quick glance in that area of the parking lot did not reveal my car. I did, however, spy a car that looked like mine (not exact, but close enough—very similar color), so I schlepped over there with all my bags, and when I got right up to it and realized it wasn’t my car, I very casually turned on my heel and went back to the area I had just come from.
Meanwhile I was clicking the key clicker thing hoping that I would hear the doors unlock, and then my car would materialize in front of me, right where it should be and wasn’t. Then I actually looked at the key clicker thing and realized it was my husband’s, and then I saw his car right in front of me, and all was well.
Except that it made me think of my father and how I must be getting dementia. (It must also be mentioned that in cases like this—inadvertent parking lot wandering—I always think that everyone else in the parking lot is staring at me and knows exactly what is going on, so I always try to act all like, “I knew where my car was, I just felt like doing a loop of the parking lot with a thousand pounds of groceries.”)
One morning, I had been working in my office on the third floor, and needed a break. I decided to go down to the kitchen on the first floor and get an iced tea. On the way back upstairs I noticed that my husband’s dry cleaning was delivered and was hanging on the front door.
I set down my iced tea on the little bench by the front door and got the dry cleaning. I locked the door, brought the dry cleaning to our bedroom on the second floor, and while I was there I decide to throw in a load of laundry. I gathered all the towels, trekked down to the laundry room, and on my way noticed that a light bulb was out in the hallway.
I started the laundry, then headed back downstairs and out the back door to the garage to get the tall step ladder. Then back into the kitchen for a light bulb, upstairs to replace bad bulb, brought the stepladder back out to the garage. On the way in I noticed that the flowers I planted in pots by the back door were wilting. (Of course, you idiot, it hasn’t rained all week.) I dragged the hose from the back yard and watered, getting dirt all over jeans I had just put on that morning.
Plants now watered, I headed back to the bedroom and changed into clean jeans. I looked at the clock and thought, Darn it, I need to get back to work, so I headed back upstairs. As soon as I sat down, I thought, Man I am thirsty. What did I do with that iced tea?
The choices we make
Just last week, in a grocery store, an older man was at the other end of the aisle I was in. He was bent down looking at cereals. He had on a brown cloth windbreaker, the kind Dad always wore; you know, like they wear on the golf course. Remember what a good golfer Dad was before he got sick?
Well, it was so weird. This man in the cereal aisle—he had thinning blondish-gray hair like Dad had at the end. It was combed over like he did his. And his glasses were down at the end of his nose.
And I thought in that instant about Dad, about how I was never going to see him again. About how handsome and strong and funny he had once been. And in that instant, looking at this man in the grocery aisle, I missed him like I never had before. And I practically ran down the aisle toward this guy.
I pushed my cart up next to him and stood there for a moment, and he smelled like Dad, too. He smelled like cigarettes, like he had smoked cigarettes in his car with the windows rolled up—a smell you hardly ever smell any more.
I paused there. What was I waiting for? For him to speak to me in Dad’s voice? Just then, he shook his head and slowly straightened up. His glasses were crooked. I breathed in the stale cigarette smell. And he did speak. He said to me, just because I was right there, I’m sure, “There’s just too many choices these days. I can’t find the one I’m looking for.”
And instead of ignoring him and turning the corner into the next aisle, I stopped and smiled at him. I said to him, “What are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it.” And I did. And then we went on our separate ways.
I don’t even know what it means, but it made me feel better. Like Dad was reminding me not to forget him. That he was still here, somehow. Like we’re all going to be here in some way, even after we are dead. And we will all be forgiven.
Kathy Stevenson’s work has appeared in many major newspapers and magazines. Her historical novel “The Lake Poet” was published in 2001, and she has published two essay collections. In 2010, her short story collection “Death, Divorce, and Other Tales of Women’s Liberation” was published as an e-book on Amazon’s Kindle. She received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Bennington College in Vermont. She can be reached at KASLF@aol.com.