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 Weinstein JCC will host a Book Fair event with author Elizabeth Isadora Gold at 3 p.m. Gold will discuss her book “The Mommy Group.” In 2010, seven women met in New York to form a mommy group. Commiserating about the typical issues they faced as new mothers, things became more complicated with postpartum depression and anxiety, developmental delays and a failed marriage. Through it all, they learned lessons from one another that the “experts” hadn’t delivered. Admission is free. For details, call 285-6500 or visit http://www.weinsteinjcc.org. Full text

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