The call came at 2:00 am and that is never a good thing. It’s happened several times, mostly in the past year. This call was no different. The caregiver said my dad fell. She found him on the bathroom floor.
Another “skin tear.” Another assurance my dad is fine. She moved his wheelchair away from his bed to discourage him from trying to get up again.
It feels like I’m wading in the ocean and a big wave is coming. If I duck at the right time, I can avoid the worst of it. But if I don’t, it will pummel me. I’ll be smacked in the face, lifted up and violently washed ashore. I’ll be coughing and spitting up water and wondering what happened.
So far, I’ve been able to duck. The calls haven’t been good news, but not catastrophic. My dad was only slightly hurt. Someone found him and put him back to bed. Everything is ok. Four, five, six times.
But I worry about the big wave. Fixate on it. Dread it. I can sense it approaching, hear the whoosh in the distance, feel its energy prickling my skin. Danger is coming. Calamity is closing in. There are only so many free passes. Have I used them all?
I lay awake the next several hours, relieved at what hasn’t happened and dreading what will.
Later I have my daily call with my father. “Dad,’ I say, “I heard you fell again last night. I know it’s frustrating but you need to remember to pull the cord. Wait for someone to help you. Don’t get up on your own.”
“I know, sweetie,” he says. “I had to go to the bathroom.”
It’s impossible to know if he really pulled the cord, or if he did whether one minute passed or 30. This is the nature of his disease. Confusion about events, time, delusions mixed with memories and dreams. Everything is jumbled together. There is no sequence, no order.
“I’m just worried Dad because this has happened several times. Please wait for them to help you.”
“I know that. I do but it doesn’t work,” he says.
I’ve gone too far. I hear that tone creep into his voice: exaggerated patience, then irritation. Dismissiveness. The unspoken reminder: I’m the parent here, not you.
Chastened, I wobble uncertainly. I’m hovering between Good Daughter and Caregiver, grappling for a place to touch down. In this moment he sounds like my father from 10 years ago, from 20 years ago: lucid and logical.
But I know he isn’t. I know in a few minutes he’ll forget he talked to me. In a few hours, he’ll forget he fell last night. Tonight, tomorrow or next week, he’ll wake in the middle of the night and try to get up by himself. He’ll fall.
Nothing I say now will prevent it. Our daily talks are like the Etch-a-Sketch I had as a child, shake it and it’s wiped clean.
I try anyway, the words feeble even to my ears. “I don’t want you to get hurt, Dad. When you try to get up on your own, you fall.”
“I don’t want to fall either,’ he says. “It hurts.”
This is the cruelest thing about my father’s disease: how slowly it erodes his brain. It destroys a huge expanse but leaves remnants, enough to give his daughter an occasional glimpse of the father she knew. Enough to make him think he is free, that he can make his own decisions and get up on his own. It puts him in a wheelchair and diapers while telling him he’s managing the facility where he lives. It convinces him he’s working long hours, making money and married to a woman down the hall.
Then when he’s feeling safe—when he’s preparing to duck and gently ride through the wave—it crashes down. It knocks him over and leaves him splattered face down on the ground. It reminds him he is barely holding on. He isn’t in charge.
And neither am I.