This is what it feels like when I’m apart from the Lord. I’m at the memory care facility vising my father and my heart is jumping inside my chest. My father is angry today and it is my fault. He lost one of his dentures a few months ago, and he wants it back immediately.
I try to explain but he is having none of it. “Bullshit,” he says. “You don’t care about me. You don’t care that I only have one tooth.”
When I arrived he was slumped over in his chair half asleep. He said he had a headache and wasn’t feeling well. There was a stain on his pants, and his belt was cinched to the last loop. I have to buy him some pants that fit.
I tae him into his room, talk to him for awhile and gave him some Tylenol. “This won’t do any good,” he says as he swallows the pills. “This isn’t my tooth.”
“It will help your headache,” I say. He won’t look at me.
In this moment I’m in the flesh, far from God. I am deeply hurt and sad, even while telling myself he doesn’t know what he’s saying. It feels like I’m trying to convince myself, because the man in front of me is more alert than usual. His mind seems sharp while he is castigating me. His words are flowing like a stream, when normally they come in spurts, like water through a busted pipe.
He is my father, but I don’t recognize him. I can’t connect with him, which is fine because he doesn’t want anything to do with me. My mind sifts through its data on dementia—all the articles and conferences and support groups. All the things I should and shouldn’t do.
Don’t try to reason. Don’t argue with him. Listen. Agree with him. Tell him you understand.
If that doesn’t work, deflect. Distract.
“I brought you some pie, Dad. Do you want a piece?” I say.
“What kind,” he says?
“Banana cream,” I say. His favorite.
“Yeah. Maybe that will help.” He says.
Susie, the hospice nurse, arrives as I’m giving my father the pie. She sees my expression and asks if everything is ok. We walk a few steps out of my dad’s hearing range.
“Not really,” I say. “He’s not in a good mood today. He has a headache and he’s angry about the denture he lost a few months ago.”
“I’m sorry,” she says. “What happened?”
I recount all the things that have been lost over the past several months/years: hearing aids, numerous items of clothing, shoes, several pairs of glasses, dentures. All were lost while he was hospitalized or a resident at an assisted living facility. Most of the facilities would not reimburse us. Instead they cited the old “we’re not responsible” cliché and said we would’ve needed private insurance to cover those items.
The glasses the hospital lost were $400 bifocals, so I argued with them for a few weeks. I asked an administrator how an 87 year-old man with dementia could be considered responsible, especially while he was ill and a patient in their hospital. It It did no good.
My father’s bottom denture was lost a few months ago at his current residence. None of the staff know what happened. All we could do was come up with a likely scenario—that it was accidentally thrown out by a staff member. My dad had a habit of taking it out when eating, rolling it in tissue paper and leaving it on his food tray. I nearly threw one out myself when he was living with us.
His dentures were $3,000. Insurance only paid a portion of the oral surgery. This was his second set. After about five months with the first set, he had to be fit again because his mouth changed and the dentures became loose. The first set was $4,000. My father’s income did not cover these expenses, so we made up the difference.
The lost hearing aid cost $3,000. The hospital would only reimburse us $300, which was the replacement warranty cost. This means if he loses it again—which is inevitable–it will not be covered at all.
All this runs through my head while my dad is admonishing me. It collides with the dementia protocol, corrupting and stream-rolling over it. My heart pounds and my voice gets thinner, higher. In a corner flailing about like a trapped animal, I make a mistake. I try to reason with my dad.
I begin explaining the financial implications and process for a replacement denture: expense, multiple trips to the dentist when he is not well enough to go anywhere (leaving out the strong likelihood it will be lost again). I’ve recently paid rent and he has less than $100 in his account.
“This place is very expensive, Dad, and your income doesn’t cover it. We are paying half of it every month.”
Even to my own ears, my words sound feeble. Hollow. I know I’m giving him legitimate reasons but he’s hearing excuses. Perhaps this is why he checks out. He looks down at his knees and shakes his head.
“You’re telling me you can’t pay for it? You don’t have the money? Come on.” He says.
Unlike mine, his words are sharp and heavy. Each one hits me hard.
So I walk away to talk with Susie, a kind woman in a well-chosen profession. She spends a few minutes listening and making commiserating sounds. I know it’s not just to get information, but because she is trying to help me too. I’m grateful for these few minutes with her.
But her entrance was my cue, so I tell her I’m going to leave now. I walk over to say goodbye to my father. He still won’t look at me and turns his head away when I try to kiss his cheek. I kiss his forehead instead and tell him I’ll see him later.
“The pie is good,” he says.
As I’m walking through the doorway I hear him tell Susie I’m spending all his money. I hesitate a moment and then keep walking. I am tired. I leave my father to his friend and his pie.