Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Dad and Me, and Rita MacNeil

The understanding of love and music are the two things that dementia cannot touch. After receiving the very wise advice, "Don't focus on what your father can't do. Focus on what he can do," we did lunch, movies and Rita MacNeil concerts. Her music was with us to the very end.
Here are two excerpts from my as-yet-unpublished memoir involving Rita MacNeil and her music and how it kept me (and my sister Araminta) connected to Dad as his disease progressed. The first story comes from 2004, while the second, very short one comes from his last days:

     In the meantime, there was still Dad to take care of. Besides going for coffee, music was the other pleasure my father enjoyed that dementia could not destroy so when I saw the ad in the paper about a Christmas concert presented by Rita MacNeil, his favourite singer, I bought two tickets. This was the third of her concerts we’d been to since I’d moved home and of everything we did to give my mother time to herself, these concerts were my favourite. The music gave Dad such enjoyment that I could pretend, and perhaps he did, too, that there was nothing wrong with him. On this evening, hearing the familiar songs, sensing how much he was enjoying himself, and knowing this would be our last concert together, I used the applause to cover up the sound of my sniffling.
     By the end of the concert, it was ten o’clock and several inches of snow had fallen since we parked. After Dad got into the car, I started the engine to warm it up while I cleaned the snow off the windows. When I tried to open the driver’s door to turn down the heater, it was locked. Likely it became too warm inside the car and when my father tried to open his window, he hit the wrong button. Now what to do? The car was running and the cell phone was inside my purse which was inside the car. Dad had enough trouble locating the handle to open the door so how on earth was he going to find a small button in the dark?
     I smiled through the window at him. “Dad, the doors are locked so I’m going to get you to unlock them.” My voice was calm and pleasant. I saw his hands fluttering around, touching but not settling on anything. “There are buttons along the door, Dad, just like in the van,” I encouraged.  My hand was on the door handle, ready to yank it as soon as he managed to hit the button. “Just hit the buttons, Dad, and something will happen.” He was banging away on the door panel and as soon as I heard the thunk of the door unlocking, I whipped open the door.
     I laughed with relief. “Great job, Dad.”
     “I’m sorry,” he said. 
     “It’s okay. Think of all the times Araminta locked her keys in the car.” 
     I felt awful as I finished cleaning off the car, the open window reminding him of what he just did, my activity reminding him of what he could no longer do. That was the thing about Alzheimer’s: no matter what you did, no matter how well something went, you still ended up making your father feel stupid and useless.

May 2009:

     Returning to the nursing home for the afternoon, I explained to my father that Mum was at home talking on the phone with Araminta. When I said her name, his eyes and face reacted. Sitting with someone for hours at a time, you learn the different facial expressions and what they mean. You learn what discomfort or pain looks and sounds like, how he will respond to certain words, and that most definitely, he will respond to certain names. Deeply-rooted knowledge no disease could touch.
     My father seemed melancholy so I put a Rita MacNeil CD into the player next to the bed and we listened to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over and over.

Songs my father loved

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