Bridging the breakdown of generations

My dad’s name is Norman, so of course people called him “Stormin’ Norman.” And the moniker fit him perfectly, for he was a proud and successful business owner and undisputed head of my four-member household.

Though he could be quite sentimental, generous and affectionate with his “girls,” he was mostly stubborn, opinionated, judgmental and foul-mouthed (usually while working in the garage). He was also a very hard worker and had a hard time relaxing, even at the family beach house. He possessed the highest of standards not only for himself but for everyone in his orbit.

He certainly wouldn’t tolerate the condition in which he now finds himself: a Parkinson’s-induced dementia that leaves him sleepy, incoherent, wheel chair-bound and barely able to chew his own food.

His decline seemed to happen quickly; one day he was able to walk upright and converse intelligently (albeit with some repetition and confusion) and the next day he was confined to his wheel chair and hard to rouse for the visits to which he used to look so forward. Worse, he didn’t recognize anyone, even his beloved daughters.

He is being cared for in a local retirement community, and because the staff takes such good care of him, he is for the most part healthy and oddly content. My sister and I are fortunate to be able to see him on a regular basis.

I try to visit once a week, but sometimes I let life make excuses for me: I have to go to the gym, the baby is cranky, it’s too hot outside and plus, it’s almost lunch time. I do this because seeing him chips giant splinters from the wood of my heart, splinters that proceed to imbed themselves in my vital organs and cause great pain from time to time.

But I go, because I like to see his face, to remind myself that he is still here with me.

When dad is awake, he might mutter a greeting or ask a question that sounds like “What have you been up to?” I sit on the air-filled bed next to him and launch into a long and detailed monologue about my family’s activities. I emphasize the accomplishments for him, out of habit.

I make a point to tell him how nice he looks, for he always took care with his appearance. “You really are a handsome devil,” he’d say to his reflection. When his eyes happen to be open, I tell him how blue they are. He sometimes grins at the compliment.

My husband will offer to accompany me on my visits, but my two older children (ages 11 and 8) don’t like going anymore. In his better days, my dad always insisted on a firm handshake with eye contact from them. He’d ask them about school and sports and how tall they were. They’d raid his stash of Werther’s Originals and peanut butter crackers, and the nurses would bring them ginger ales. We’d make a morning out of it.

I don’t blame them for not wanting to see their “pee-paw” in such a state. But my 19-month-old hasn’t learned to protest visiting yet. In fact, she loves everything about the place – the fountain in the foyer, the cockatiel Jerry in the lobby, the endless, carpeted hallways, the elevator, the adoring residents and staff.

She even finds my dad somewhat amusing. She squeals and points when she sees him and tries to climb his wheelchair like it’s a jungle gym. The juxtaposition between them is staggering; my 80-year-old dad dozes in his wheelchair as my toddler scampers from the floor-length mirror in the bathroom to the ultimate La-Z-Boy in the corner.

She periodically stands before my dad in confusion and waves frantically, as if to elicit a response from him, so I place her on his lap. And while I’m fumbling with my phone to take some photos before the girl takes a serious tumble, I see that my dad’s hands have a firm grip on her. He’s actually holding her – his granddaughter – and they both start to jibber and jabber like old friends.

I snap about 20 photos. And I realize that there is still life and love in my dad; Stormin’ Norman – with his firm grip – is in there somewhere, even yet.

What I wouldn’t give to hear a cuss word or two from his mouth. But I am grateful for his beating heart, his steadfast courage and dignity, his bright blue eyes, which every once in a while I have the privilege to see.

Diann Ducharme is the author of The Outer Banks House and the recently released e-book, Chasing Eternity, and is a wife, mother of three children and owner of one border collie. You can find her at http://www.diannducharme.com, where she blogs about the writing life.
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The following churches in Henrico County will hold Christmas Eve services:

Trinity United Methodist Church, 903 Forest Ave. – 4 p.m. (family), 6 p.m. (modern), 8:30 p.m. (traditional) and 11 p.m. (traditional);
Welborne United Methodist Church, 920 Maybeury Dr. – 5 p.m. (family) and 8 p.m. (traditional);
River Road Church Baptist, 8000 River Rd. – 4 p.m. and 11 p.m.;
Oak Hall Baptist Church, 1877 Old Hanover Rd. – 4:30 p.m.;
St. John’s Catholic Church, 813 W. Nine Mile Rd. – 5:30 p.m.;
Highland Springs United Methodist Church, 22 N. Holly Ave. – 7 p.m.;
Battery Park Christian Church, 4201 Brook Rd. – 7 p.m.;
Grove Avenue Baptist Church, 8701 Ridge Rd. – 6 p.m.;
Unitarian Universalist Community Church, 11105 Cauthorne Rd. – 6 p.m.;
Gayton Road Christian Church, 12050 Ridgefield Pkwy. – 7 p.m.;
Mount Vernon Baptist Church, 11220 Nuckols Rd. – 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.;
Bon Air Baptist Church at The Village, 7250 Patterson Ave. – 5:30 p.m.;
Christ Presbyterian Church, 2508 Dickens Rd. – 7 p.m.;
St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 9505 Gayton Rd. – 5 p.m., 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.;
Corinth United Methodist Church, 23 W. Williamsburg Rd. – 4 p.m. (family), 7 p.m. (traditional) and 11 p.m. (candlelight);
The Gayton Kirk Presbyterian Church, 11421 Gayton Rd. – 5 p.m. and 11 p.m.;
North Run Baptist Church, 2100 Lydell Dr. – 6 p.m.
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