Sunday, January 25, 2015

Playing ping pong with my father

The one enduring thing that makes my father’s eyes light up, besides my mother, of course , is an offer of a game of ping pong.

He loves that paddle in his hand. The focus required. The single mindedness. No conversation has the power to harness his mind like the challenge of hitting that little plastic ball back across the net to his opponent. No memory is more vivid it seems, than muscle memory.

Despite Alzheimer's and prostate cancer that's spread deeply into his bones, his hand-eye coordination has not suffered and may be the last to go. A true athlete-- his identity has always lurked somewhere in the tangles of his strong, coordinated physique and a mentality for constant motion. I like that. It fits.

I also like how he counts the hay bales each time we come into the back meadow on our walk. A walk that has become more slow and more predictable each day. The most predictable part, his stopping to count, out loud, how many hay bales there are dotting the scene in front of him. He wants, no needs, to keep track, as obsessively as he once kept track of his checking account balance.

And the chanting..."Yes, yes, Christ yes"  that has become part of his day, as if he were being preached to by some unheard preacher and agrees with everything he says.

His legs have grown wobbly, unreliable.

He has moments of belligerence.
If you don’t stop that I’ll smack your butt until you are black and blue.

Did someone say that to him as a child? I would ask him, but I know he’s already forgotten what he said.

“What are you doing?” he sometimes says to Isla, in that cold, accusatory voice, when she’s being too boisterous around him. He sometimes even says it to me, when I’ve made too much noise, or moved too suddenly for his liking. Too much or his scattered brain and burned out nervous system to handle.

But mostly, his voice and demeanor are soft.

And grateful.
Thank you for all you’ve done today. Thank you for being here with me. Thank you. I love you.

His body moves so slowly. He sleeps incessantly, as if he's being pulled under by a force that we can’t see. But it’s strong. It’s constantly pulling him, every waking hour. Pulling him back, pulling him down.

It's impossible to know what he's experiencing. When he exclaims "Sonofabitch, Sonofabitch, and "Stop it, you bitch, you bastard,"  is he talking to the cancer? Or is he cursing the darkness that is stealing his mind?

The moments come in such short bursts he can’t answer when I ask, “What's the matter, dad?”

It’s something no one can see. Something discreet and deadly. A thief.

His legs are wobbly. He fell in the bathroom yesterday, a colossal clatter, luckily saved by the toilet before he hit the floor.

Basic dressing and undressing stymies him:
Do shoes come before pants? Do I need two belts? Am I unbuttoning or buttoning? Am I going to bed or waking up? Am I coming or going?

He’s gone so alarmingly quiet, my dad.  Because he can’t stop the clicking of his brain. It's like a wheel and he can’t make it stop. Can't make it settle firmly on the right topic. He can't contribute because we are, everything is, moving too fast for him.

Or is he moving too fast for us? I don’t know.

So he says nothing. My father has never said nothing. My father is a talker, an engager, a joke teller. Rarely has he ever left a space empty of words.

Now he’s often without a voice. Speechless. Nodding. Because speaking takes too much energy, or because he just can't remember the words. The words aren’t making themselves available fast enough. He can’t find them in time. Not the right ones.

His eyes look so vulnerable. His hands are still so big and strong. He uses them to grab mine each time I help him get his arm through his shirtsleeve. He grabs my hand with such abrupt firmness. Such desperate, fatherly warmth.

It startles me, every time.