A memoir of my father succumbing to dementia
| A new place, new faces and a new direction; all of the things I found in Montana. I woke up every morning and looked out my window at the mountains. The sight still takes my breath away.
Everywhere I looked, Billings was a new opportunity waiting for me and I determined that I would make the most of it. I was twenty-one with a steady job, an apartment and a future that started with college. I didn’t call home very often, not more than once every other weekend, because I was out and doing whatever I fancied.
Whatever I fancied soon became a steady routine including church on Sunday, helping friends finish their newly built house a few days a week and washing my car every Friday. I met new people every day and one of the best parts of the whole experience was that they got to know me as Donna, not Mark’s daughter or Larry’s niece. Life was a clean page for me to write on and I was a mature woman.
During the occasional call home my sister and I would fight, Mom and I discussed the weather and work, Dad related the latest horse news and my brother and I talked about new things I’d seen and done.
Mom and I talked about once a month and would joke about how distance makes the heart grow fonder after Mom talked about how much she missed me. I missed her too, but played it off like life was perfect.
Dad and I talked even less. He wasn’t convinced I was making a smart move and told me so as often as he could remember to, which included three times in some conversations and none in others. He wasn’t much of a phone talker unless it had to do with horses, so most of our conversations started with how all of the horses were and ended rather abruptly after the subject was finished. We didn’t really know how to talk to each other and we didn’t try to fake it.
I was feeling homesick one afternoon and my roommate came home while I was talking to Dad. She thought twice about starting to carry a pillow at her side when I hung up and threw the phone with a cuss word at my laundry basket.
“All he said was ‘see ya,’” I spat. I was fed up with his lack of emotion or feeling. I felt weak and helpless and lonely when I wanted to be strong and self-reliant. “He didn’t even say he loved me! He never does.”
My roommate listened, but she didn’t pretend to understand. She felt bad for me, but knew nothing she could say would make it better so she asked what I was doing later. I answered, “Trying not to be pissed off,” and we both laughed.
Classes started and ended with little news to report from academia, however my life received a drastic revamping at mid-term. I quit my job to focus more on my studies and freelanced my labor for the theatre in town putting up sets. I moved into the dorms with two freshmen barely out of high school in order to have more time to study (and less in the car) and sold my car to save money. So now I’m a twenty-one year old freshman living with a 17 and 18 year-old in a one-room dorm with a public shower and no car. Not exactly my idea of living like an adult, but I had a goal and was determined to see it through.
Fall finals rushed upon us that first semester and everyone started talking about going home for break. The excitement of the students was palpable as they discussed spending time with family and catching up with friends. I was as prepared as I could have been for finals, but nothing prepared me for the homesickness I thought I was immune to.
The more everyone was talking about home the more I wished I was doing the same, but I had no car and all of my savings were tied up in tuition. I had no way of getting home and no plans to do so. I spent Christmas break in the dorms with the company of a good friend and my weekends with my pastor and his family, but I was just plain lonely for my own family.
December was a long month with very few people around. I’d been so ready for everyone to leave so they could stop reminding me of how lonely I would be and then I was ready for everyone to come back so I could stop thinking about how lonely I was. Amazingly, time passed quicker than I thought it would as I filled my days with work, the few friends that were around, and phone calls home.
In my loneliness I began to call my mother just to hear her voice, which was a new concept for both of us, but we enjoyed the time spent and the awkwardness didn’t last long. I talked to Mom every other day and I talked to Dad about every fourth day. I found that the more all of us called, the more we had to talk about. Even with nothing eventful happening on my end of the receiver, I had more to tell them. They were part of my routine and quickly becoming part of my life again.
We soon developed a routine. She would try and call around 6pm and if I hadn’t heard from her by 7pm, I would call. We would talk for at least an hour as I sat in bed and wrote story ideas and poetry and anything else I was inspired to do while we discussed life: everything shy of politics. After we had exhausted every possible topic on which we might have something of intelligence to say the phone became the object of a game of “hot potato” as it passed from person to person. Everyone in Mom and Dad’s house said “hi” no matter how well we knew each other.
Dad was always the second to last stop for my phone call. He would tell me about this horse or that trailer, a funny thing the dog did three days ago that he’d already told me four times and something frustrating my sister did a month ago. I could recite my sister’s shortcomings, according to my dad, in my sleep. He ended every conversation with, “How are your grades?” and a gruff, “Here’s your Mom.” Even Dad and I would branch beyond our normal subjects of horses into areas like the weather and work and the movies I’d been watching. He still didn’t say, “I love you,” but it was human contact and, more importantly, it was family contact.