You Never Know What Can Happen

This post is in reply to Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s Forward piece, “Keeping the Conversation Going: A Daughter Speaks to Her Mother Across the Memory Loss Divide.”

The visit to my Dad last week didn’t have an auspicious beginning. For the first time since he entered a nursing home two and a half years ago, he did not recognize me. He was delighted to learn who I was — the rabbi daughter, visiting from her home 2,000 miles away) — but he was quite agitated.

“I don’t know how I got here,” he said. I’ve never been in this place before. It’s some kind of a school started by some guy who’s made millions in non-union enterprises.”

“Dad, look at those pictures on the wall. Isn’t that one your Dad? Aren’t those my kids? Isn’t that a photo of the business you ran?

“Yeah, that’s so strange, I wonder how they got all of those pictures in here.”

I am trying to “re-orient” Dad, to bring him into reality as I know it. He is not going along. If anything, he’s getting more upset. I know from many years of accompanying people with dementia as a chaplain that convincing someone that their perception is wrong simply doesn’t work. Still, it’s painful to see my dad, formerly a dynamic politician and raconteur, so out of it. I pivot and try another tack.

“Dad, this must be very disorienting for you.”

“YES. And this sort of thing is happening to me a lot lately!”

As soon as I stop trying to correct and fight him, things improve. He’s still not oriented — he would definitely not pass the mini-mental status test (count backward from 100 by 7s; remember these three objects). But he is calm. He is happy at brunch in the dining room downstairs. He readily agrees to sit outside on the patio. The sun is warm, and the light is golden on this first day of fall. I am still, restraining my urge to make small talk.

Dad asks, “How should I describe your work these days?” I tell him he can tell people that I work to bring meaning to aging through Judaism. “That sounds right,” he says. I tell him that I’ve been writing melodies, and he asks me if I would sing one. I sing a blessing for growing older:

May you see the blessing in all your days,
Notice beauty and sweetness and be amazed.
May you love without bound.
Ever feel God surround.
May you mend and tend,
May you learn without end.
May you see the blessing
May you seize the blessing
May you be a blessing in all your days.

Dad’s whole demeanor changes. He is rapt, lit up, mouthing the words along with me, though he has never heard the song before. The air between us charges.

“That was beautiful,” he says. “I’m just going to close my eyes. I’m not tired, I just want to enjoy being here.”

I think to myself, “Who is this man?”

We sit in the silence.

“You are a wonderful daughter. I have had many blessings, but this visit is among the greatest.”

All of this is surprising. My Dad, the avid agnostic, has never been known to be moved by prayer. More astonishing than that, though, is Dad’s utter sweetness. He was never easy, often immensely difficult. I had learned long ago to put on emotionally protective gear when I interacted with him. Now, the harsh aspects of his being seem to have burned off, leaving his pure, loving, grateful soul.

Dad has forgotten that I am married and have three children. He does not know where he is right now. But he is wholly present and connected. He is beautiful in this moment. And I love him completely.

Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, MA, MSW, BCC, offers training, consulting and spiritual guidance on the journey of later life through her Philadelphia-based practice, Growing Older. Her publications include Jewish Pastoral Care and Jewish Visions for Aging (both Jewish Lights Publishing). Click here to listen to her sing “A Blessing for Growing Older.”

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