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dad, john cameron chappell, may 2003each year, father’s day is a bit differently nuanced for me, especially in these recent years of living with mom and her shifting memories of him, their relationship, our family.  the man she remembers, or perhaps more accurately re-members, bears a kernel of resemblance to the man i recall growing up with, but the stories she tells have evolved, or devolved, dramatically in recent years. in some ways, her alzheimer’s dementia has done more to remove him from my life than it has removed her.

now, i totally get that memories are not reality. they are interpretations and so change over time.  i notice this quite regularly for mine. as i come to understand or reframe an event in my past, my memory of it changes. or maybe it is the emotional charge of the memory that changes, causing shifts in details. and memories differ from person to person, even when those people are all in the same room at the same time. have you had one of those conversations with a sibling? like, were we even raised in the same home??

all those memes that proclaim ‘people change, memories do not’ are simply nonsense.  memories might be precious, they might be horrific, they might be mundane, but they are also watery, opalescent, runny.

in general, dad was a modest and humble sort of person.  he was outspoken and direct and was never known to beat around the bush on anything.  he had a good sense of fun and a pointed sense of humour and this was never in short supply.  he never, in my memory, did anything for show, nor did he appreciate flash and show in others, and he did not suffer fools.  he also had a generous spirit and a gentle heart, though there were clearly times when he would allow his beliefs in what he ought to do over ride what his heart felt.  he was sexist, and behaved as would a gentleman of his era – both chivalrous and quick to point out the merits of sexist roles.  he loved all of us, even when that was difficult or painful.  he loved his wife.  he offered gruff, sometimes harsh, corrections and was given to despair when we fell into waywardness. he had a strong sense of family loyalty and obligation.

while mom loved him, in the ways she knew how, she did not see strength of character in his modesty and within days — moments? — of his death, she began a radical new storyline for her (our) life. these creations of her longing were so easy for me to live with when they were not a regular part of my life.  this changed when she came to live with us almost 3 years ago, and her new updated version of life was ever present.  early on, she would try to co-opt me into her re-creations and i, not fully understanding that i was responding to her-with-dementia and not just her, fully resisted. i no longer recognized him in her memories, though i saw so much of what she wanted to be in this construction of a whole new history.  it gave her a whole new present.

yet, it is really very little of her-with-dementia that is the composer of this brave new past.  my confusion was simply with my role. really, the rewrite is just her, as she has always been, but uncensored by the realities of others. as my partner pointed out much earlier in this way of being/living with her, the dementia has simply distilled her into a much more concentrated version of herself.

it has been part of a difficult and ongoing journey for me to leave these interpretations – often pure fabrication – be, to not be bothered by the dad in my heart no longer being the dad of our shared history.

see? here i am, talking about it. still. and i know i am not yet finished.

so, today, on this father’s day, i take a moment to be grateful he did not live to see her into her life with dementia; he would not have coped well with it.  and i am thankful for the bits of him-in-me that i like which balance out some of the bits of her-in-me i do not.  i allow myself to soften into my own memories and accept that some of the choices i made were right and reasonable responses of a girl, a child, living in a chaotic life circumstance where little was as it seemed and so much was the opposite of the official narrative. i can begin to release some of this now.  i am sure dad would be okay with me finding my way.









usually there are just the three of us at our evening dinner. we sit around a small table my paternal grandfather made, a prototype for a large contract he had with a local psychiatric hospital back in the 1950’s. it is the same table my father, in his later years, placed at the end of the sofa in the living room where he read the newspaper, watched tv, or practiced dates and numbers when his stroke removed them from his memory banks.

i sit across from mom, udo to my left and her right.  a window is behind me and sometimes mom bobs and weaves to gaze at the farm field beyond.

over the past year, i have been unable to make eye contact with her as she eats, the half-chewed mouthfuls clinging to her protruding tongue as she puts yet more in there.  udo, for a while, was concerned she was having serious swallowing issues, but she has simply developed the habit of putting three fork fulls of food in her mouth, always sampling some of everything on her plate, before she completes the chewing and finally swallows.  it is okay that she does this, but watching while i also eat does little for my appetite and so i avert my gaze.

we – udo and i – try to keep up a generic sort of pattering conversation at meal time, trying to keep it accessible to her.  for the most part, she simply puts her head down and attends to her plate.  there are occasions, however, when she participates in the conversation or is triggered by something in the conversation to relay one or more of her stories.

there is a repertoire of these stories and they are somewhat akin to memories leavened with neurological cracklings and poppings of dementia; memories with holes and gaps, sometimes left to hang without connections, sometimes filled in with random ingredients from the pantry of her mind.

frequently these days, our evening meal conversation includes daily events related to the black lives matter upswell of protest.  invariably, these topics touch a specific memory in her from her last year in high school. last evening was no different, though the story spun a bit into other nuggets of her school life.

she, looking at me:  you remember Central School.


me, hesitating:  Central School

she: yes, up in back. you must have gone there too.

me:  um, um …

she, looking a bit confused:  you are not one of mumma’s children

me: no, i am not

she:  who is your mother?

me, still hesitantly:  you are. you are my mother.

she, furrowed browed and quizzically:  i can’t be your mother

me, after a short silence:  do you know my name?

she does not respond but continues to look confused and disbelieving

me:  my name is wendy.  i am your third child.

she, again with a space for thought:  you must have lived with us in sydney river.

me:  yes, i did.

she, tentatively offering a questionstatement:  claudia was the only other girl

me:  yes.

and then she went silent, closing in a bit on herself, and turned her attention to the slice of strawberry rhubarb pie in front of her. and i returned to my slice, closing in on myself a bit too.

i am not always aware of who i am in these conversations.  sometimes i am wendy, her daughter, though that label exists without context, without memory of that relationship.  other times it is clear i am her sister and still other times i am unsure – am i a cousin, a childhood neighbour or friend?  but, even after a couple of years of this, i am always caught unawares by these turns in conversation, when it becomes clear that we are not clear. neither of us.

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