Last week, I flew from my home in Italy back to the United States to help my brother tend to my father. This is a trip I have imagined making many times, and one which I have always dreaded. It was, in a sense, inevitable, but that didn't diminish my fear of it.
My father is not old by his family’s genetic standards, but age has hit him. Something has happened to him, and he is no longer the same. Not strong. Not always coherent. Maybe not always understanding of what’s going on around him. It’s hard to tell. His world is much smaller now, more closed, defined by the limitation of his own movements and the struggles both to comprehend and to respond. The doctors were utterly unenlightening in their diagnosis. “One of many possible forms of rapid onset dementia,” they said, then they added little else besides, “He can never go home again.” So independence and mental acuity have been replaced by utter dependence and a mental cloud, which blocks articulate conversation but lets the rays of love and sweetness flow freely. He is not himself, yet he is utterly himself. And his strange way of speaking is often more accurate than reality: At one point in the hospital he said, “When did we get to this country? When did we pass through customs?”
And I, well, I’m struggling with all of this. How can I feel ripe when the fruits of my own father are falling from the tree? How do I give to children on one side and to aging parents on the other without depleting my own resources? How do I contain all these emotions, register all the sadness, and still find joy?
I asked my brother, “Do you feel older or younger now?” And he answered without hesitation and a deep sigh, “Older.” I said I felt both. Older, because we are next in line. (This is just the fact, ma’am.) Younger, because, damn it, compared to my father, I am young. I am still vital and free and mobile. I am still capable of acting according to my wishes and of saying what those wishes are. And younger because, despite all the unanswered questions about what it means and how do I do it, I am—somehow—doing it. I am living it. I am giving at both ends and all around. And miraculously, there is something left of me, and she is—believe it or not—thankful for something she can’t name and singing because her voice must sing.
Life is life until it isn’t anymore. My father isn’t dead; he’s alive. He's not all there, but I haven't lost him. Not yet. And despite his state, there is still a will to go on and to live each day, and there is joy there. When he rolls into his bed at night, he chuckles, as if to congratulate himself, or merely because he finds it all amusing.
There is a lesson there, and without doubt, a gift to me, if I will only take it and hold it close. —Charlotte