Man, dog, love [November 8]
My father is sitting at my kitchen table telling a story about a dog. Many decades ago he was tasked with collecting a guard dog, an Alsatian, from some far away kennels. The owner issued a warning – ‘he’ll take your arm off if you’re not careful’. When my father arrived to collect the dog the kennel people also warned him – this dog was ‘real vicious’.
My father knelt down in front of the small cage containing the large dog and spoke to him in a gentle voice that I know well. The dog eventually wagged its tail and then climbed meekly into the passenger seat of my father’s car.
It was a long drive back to the city and my father spoke quietly to the dog the whole way. When they arrived at their destination – an isolated warehouse with a high fence inside which the dog would be locked, alone – my father opened the passenger side door. But the dog began to whimper. It didn’t want to get out of the car.
At this point in the story my father stops speaking and lowers his head. After a few moments I ask, ‘Are you okay?’
He shakes his head, still looking down, and croaks, ‘It was just so sad.’
Now we’re both looking down at the tablecloth and it’s not just because of the long ago dog. In the next room there is a woman lying on my couch trying to remember who she is. That woman is my mother, but at times now I also wonder who she is.
It is two years since my mother learnt she had Alzheimer’s. When she first got the diagnosis she wanted to die. She told us so repeatedly. In response, my father made it his mission to try to persuade his wife that life was still worth living.
He has always been inventive. If I ever get lost in the wilderness I hope it will be with my father because I know he will find a way out for us. Over the last two years he has invented entirely new species of hors d’oeuvres to persuade my mother to eat. He has hand-carved elaborate wooden handles for various items of furniture in their home to help her get up and down. He has bought and sold several caravans in the hopes of enticing her to go camping with him one more time.
For his sake my mother has tried to cultivate a taste for life. She has eaten the strange hors d’oeuvres and praised his creativity. For my sake she has tried again to play the silent piano. But the notes on the page won’t keep still and the distance between the keys never seems to stay the same. She plays the same bars over and over, wondering why the tune goes nowhere. And one by one her words – the ones she needs to explain her decomposing world to us – have sunk away in her marshy brain before she could utter them.
In the daytime my parents have tried hard to keep to the rituals of their old life. When visitors come my father finishes her sentences for her. The visitors are amazed by their fortitude, and many have been fooled by the brave front. When they leave my mother lies down on the bed again, waiting patiently for something she can’t remember.
After dark, though, my mother becomes someone else, a whimpering caged thing roaming the house trying to find a way out. And night after night my father makes her cups of tea and holds her close and tries to talk her back to herself in that gentle voice of his. In the mornings she remembers nothing but he remembers it all, and shakes his head when he tells me the barest details, trying to protect me – the youngest child – from the horror. My older siblings fill me in and we wonder how long it can go on. We worry that our father, our brave captain, will go down with the ship. He promised himself – and us, and her – that as long as my mother knew who he was, he would keep caring for her at home.
A man in his eighties with a dicky heart can only go so far on so little sleep. And although his wife of fifty years still knows who he is most days, the time has come for him to relinquish her into full-time care. His children are urging it. His GP is urging it. The people who tune up his pacemaker are urging it. Even he knows he has reached his limit.
But a promise is a promise and he can’t stop himself trying to find practical solutions to this intractable problem. A different walking frame, a renovated bathroom, a new drug, surely to goodness there must be some drugs out there that can bring his wife back. But the doctors shake their heads.
Soon my father will open the passenger door of their car and help my mother out of her old life and into her new – her final – life, for the first and last time. And my father will have no one to invent things for, or to try to lead out of the wilderness.
And now, at the kitchen table, I breathe deeply and wait for him to lift his head again. Then I ask the question the story demands.
‘So what happened with the dog?’
His eyes still can’t meet mine. ‘I had to leave him there’. But he has a question, too.
‘What else could I do?’
(This essay was first published anonymously in The Big Issue in 2019)