Published March 14, 2020.
My 89-year-old father, Charles Hahn, has dementia. Last week, the memory care residence he recently moved to closed to all visitors, as have most around the country. The next morning he fell. There is a fracture in his neck, and although it is very small, he will need to wear a collar for the next three months. He has been moved to a nursing care facility which, of course, is also closed to all visitors. We hope his stay will be brief, and that he will be able to return to his new home soon, but we don’t know when that will happen.
When I was training to be a therapist and social worker, I took a class on trauma. The instructor wanted to impress upon on us the importance of our clients feeling safe, and asked us all to remember a situation in which we ourselves had felt completely safe. My own response was instantaneous. I had felt safe with my father. My specific memory was of crawling into his lap as he read the newspaper and sitting, nestled against his chest, as long as I wanted to.
I remember marching along behind him as he mowed the lawn on a hot Texas day, periodically running inside to bring him a glass of cold water, basking in his gratitude. I remember the crowded fellowship hall of our church, and me, running and flinging my arms around a pair of legs in familiar trousers, only to look up and see the bemused smile of a stranger, who kindly pointed me towards my actual father. I remember countless times when my sister Shelley was a baby, being offered a choice between staying home with Shelley and my mother, or going somewhere with my father. It didn’t matter where, or what the errand of the moment, I wanted to go with Dad, to ride along beside him in the car, to hold his hand as we went about the business of our glorious outing.
I now work as a therapist. I often help people with very different father stories than my own. Some had fathers who inflicted unspeakable horrors on them. Some yearn for what they could never get from their fathers: to feel seen, to have their approval, to feel they measured up, to be comforted, protected, loved. Others had fathers who were unpredictable, unreliable, frightening. These things have left their mark, in the form of depression, addiction, shame, or simply a deep sense of not being okay. I am deeply grateful to have tools now that really help. I know things are getting better when someone tells me they are feeling more at peace, they know their own goodness, they know they are lovable, they feel safe.
Pat and I visited my family in Bloomington, Indiana this past Christmas. The dementia had progressed since I had last seen my father. He still knew who I was, though, and was so happy to see me. To my surprise, I found myself not wanting to engage with him. It was so much easier to focus on providing much-needed support for my sister and mother. I did, of course, engage with him, as feelings of guilt, confusion, and overwhelm swirled within me. It felt like my heart had shut down.
My sister Shelley, by virtue of proximity, has shouldered most all of the caregiving and support for our parents since they have come to need it. I asked her recently if she has been able to feel grief about our father’s loss of so much of who he had been. She told me it’s been hard to grieve, but that occasionally the tears come and she “wails.” This week, I wondered aloud to Pat why I hadn’t felt grief over the slow loss of my father. In his wisdom, he said, “The time hasn’t been right yet. Don’t worry.”
Just as my father had been getting adjusted to his new memory care home, he was moved to a strange, new place where he cannot have visitors. Given all the circumstances, it was the best, really the only choice to be made. Even so, I imagine he is confused and anxious. Faced with my own sense of powerlessness, I realize my father deserves my open heart, now, just as his has always been open to me. As I shed tears of grief, and of love, I send this message: “May you know comfort. May you know peace. May you know you are safe and loved.”
As our world is shaken by pandemic, it occurs to me we might practice sending these kinds of messages to each other.
Just a thought…
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