My beautiful step-father will be 82 years old next week. Sadly his life has been jostled by Alzheimer’s Disease and the fact that mum had a stroke and can longer care for him at home. One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was to place Hugo/Papa in a residential home. Alzheimer’s is a long slow death. I am blessed that even now, in the advanced stages of the disease, Hugo still remembers me. He smiles when my name is mentioned. My Aunt Ethna went to visit Hugo recently. As my aunt held Hugo’s hand and told him I miss him and send him my love, Hugo looked up and smiled and squeezed my aunt’s hand. I haven’t seen Hugo since I left Ireland in mid-July. I love him and miss him. I wrote the essay, Gentlemen’s Friend, after a vacation we spent together with mum in the south of France 2 years ago. It was to be the last vacation either mum or I would spend with Hugo. I offer you this story as a tribute to the man I am fortunate enough to love like a father, and who loves me as his second daughter. I also want to acknowledge my mother for having taken care of Hugo at home for so long. Mum’s love for Hugo is immense. I deeply admire her for all she has done for him. Sadly Hugo has deteriorated a lot since writing this essay. When he speaks now it is to him imaginary friends. His sentences are structured but they make no sense. Happy birthday Papa Hugo! I only wish you could read and understand the story I wrote for you.
He has a chair at the far end of the living room. It has become his sanctuary, the one tangible thing he can rely upon, other than his wife, of course. He might forget where he is in the house. He might ask where the bathroom is, or where he left his teeth. On occasions he will try to get ready for bed. He will put his pajamas on, and in the moment that defies all understanding to him, he will dress himself again putting his sweater and trousers back on over his pajamas. He will frown in confusion when his wife, having discovered his error gets him out of bed and assists him to remove his day clothes. He will return to bed sinking his head into the pillow. He will drift into sleep unable to comprehend what has just happened. Can’t understand, he will sometimes say as he surrenders to the solace of night.
He is my step-father, Hugo. Papa, to his grand children. He will sometimes forget my name and struggle to tell my mother that I phoned; the woman we went on holiday with called. It will take him time and many attempts to get these words out. Complete sentences often evade him. Words tease him and torment him, their characters rearranging themselves like Scrabble tiles waiting to be placed on the board. Scrabble was a long time ago. Word Search papers have been put away in a drawer. The names of common objects will not travel his brain to his lips. He will journey
around the names of things that slip from his mind more often now. What is it? The thing you put the tea in. He will raise his voice slightly, something he has rarely done before. My mother
will try to hide her frustration, her sadness at the rapid deterioration of the gentleman she fell in love with thirty-seven years ago. She will try to help him. Is it the teapot you want? Or the tea
cup? Mum has added ‘forced alternatives’ to her toolbox. It will take him time and many attempts to get these words out. At times Papa will forget his wife’s name. Mum will stifle tears, keep a stiff upper lip, and gently coax the love of her life into recognition. While his memory will tease him, he never forgets his chair. When he is stressed, or tired, or appears to remember the sense of humiliation at the loss of control of his most basic physical functions, he seeks comfort in his chair. Mum will be angry. She will feel cheated by this indiscriminate disease. She is appalled, disgusted, and bitter about the daily laundry she must do, the physical assistance she must provide Papa. It wasn’t me, he insists as he stands in the bath-tub and mum takes the hand shower and rinses him down. Then who was it? This is a new excuse, another marker on the slide; a clinging pause testing the strength of resistance. The fella out there! He is adamant. Which fella? The one out there. Do you mean to tell me there’s a fella out there who comes in here to piss and shit in your pants? Ay. When he speaks, his Northern Irish lilt sings, sometimes staccato, sometimes legato. He gave up singing in church three years ago. The members of the choir sigh at the loss of this extraordinary bass. Mum judges herself harshly. She is unforgiving for the infrequent times when she shouts in frustration, a thing she thinks she should not do. She is torn between her love for him and her deepening sadness at her loss.
There is beauty in this disease.
The author, David James Duncan, has a word. He keeps it on a slip of paper stuck to his computer screen where he sees it every day. His word is “fun.” Duncan says there is fun in everything somewhere. All you have to do is embrace it. He does not belittle tragedy, the pain and sadness, the shock and horror of war-torn lives. Duncan finds the fun that will lift and hold the sagging minds and bodies of adversity. He will find the fun that will provide momentary relief. Papa has fun between his lightning strikes. He has given me my word – simplicity. And as one word borrows another, I add Duncan’s word into the mix.
There is the simplicity of long gone child-like ways that surface from deep within this beautiful man. He graces us with the responsibility of his trust – the simple dependency he visits upon us.
It is almost two years since my mother and I took Papa to the south of France. Do you want to go? Mum asks him hopefully. She needs a break. If she takes him back to where they have been before she hopes he will remember. She hopes he will feel secure in the arm-chair in the morning room where he has had many breakfasts. Ay. I do. And hours later when he has circled the thoughts in his head into words, it would be a good idea. The words mum needs to hear.
Where is she? Mum has stopped to look in a window. She would like to find something special to wear, something different that sings of the sophistication of the south of France. Something that says I have been somewhere that will define me for a few moments. Something to wear that will veil the reality of the struggling moments. A dress, perhaps, that Papa the elegant man, will smile his approval of.
She’s right behind us. I slide my hand inside his. He folds his soft warm hand around mine, and tightens his grip ever so slightly as he turns to look behind him. See? She’s right there. Look at me a moment. He turns his head toward me. Look. Can you see that little café? Can you see the tables with the umbrellas? He frowns and looks back at me. We are going to walk slowly toward the café. We’ll sit down and order coffee, and before you know it she will be back with us. He seems okay with this. We walk. He shuffles head bent, shoulders facing forward.
There is a staircase in the small hotel. It is as wide and spiraled as the stories of our lives. I will never forget this staircase, and the warm night of a memory it gave me. It was after dinner, a dinner of crepes in a cavern, of champagne in tired glasses before we left the hotel for our nightly dinner. The faded chintz and sagging upholstery mocking Louis 16th, and all the antique
silver couldn’t persuade us to eat where mushrooms grew out of the hotel restaurant ceiling. Nothing could compete that night, with the sizzling pan of gossamer galettes dressed with sheaths of ham and Gruyère. Almost as secure as the morning-room chair, was the salvatory reminiscence of the crêperie in the cave.
I slipped on the pavement outside the hotel on our way back from the crêperie. I was trying to catch Papa who had bent over so far toward his feet that he lost balance and a fall was inevitable. I caught him, but in doing so I rocked over on my left foot into a hole and the cracking sound of my broken bone shocked us all. I limped in pain with a fractured foot. Back at the hotel, I traded places with Papa. It was my turn to ride in the one person elevator, and his turn to climb the stairs to our rooms. I stood watching him and mum as they ascended the stairs arm in arm. Mum steadied him gently, one step at a time. Papa looked back. He smiled at me, and paused amid two steps, and then with a regal wave he chuckled. Papa and I made eye contact. In this moment it felt as though time stood still, that time paused, the distance between this moment and the next suspended in the delicateness of a gossamer thread. Papa saw the moment for what it was. A reversal in our situation. In the same moment I recognized this too and I laughed out loud forgetting the pain, my pain, his pain. All of our pain.
This memory is mine, a gift I will always hold on to. A moment of beauty. A moment mum and I will be able to recall in the winter when remember when? is a soothing lullaby.
There are many friends who will come and go. Many friends who will visit Papa as he sits in his place at the bottom of the room. There are friends he speaks to, laughs with, searches for; these friends of his imagination. And then there’s the fella out there, of course. No friend, just a master of deception. The best friend of all as Papa stares into space is the one that holds him secure. This friend is this gentleman’s chair.