My father asks the same question, over and over, often while we are driving on Tyson Avenue to his doctor’s appointments. I have no idea why that road triggers memories in his mind tangled by dementia, but it does.
“How did I get here?” he wants to know.
“Because I didn’t want to take Levick to get to Torresdale Avenue,” I reply.
But that is not what he means. I know he is trying to figure out why he, a college professor at Rosemont College, is in assisted living. How did he get there? How did he get to be 86? How come his memory is so messed up?
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I try my best to answer.
“Well, you fell down the steps in your house,” I tell him. “You had to go to the emergency room for illnesses. You weren’t eating right. You didn’t like being alone. And we were worried about you.”
(I left out the part about robbers breaking into his house while he was sleeping. Later, they stole all the copper pipes from his basement and his World War 2 medals. They were never caught and I hope they rot in Hell.)
He doesn’t seem upset by my answers, just perplexed. In about 15 minutes, he will ask me again, because his short term memory is shot.
“You live in your own room at the Philadelphia Protestant Home and you like it there,” I tell him.
“PROTESTANT?” he asks, with some concern. He is Irish/Scotch Catholic, through and through. Each time I tell him he lives at PPH, he gets a worried tone, as if he is Mary Queen of Scots in Reformist England.
I assure him that while the NAME of the facility involves the word “Protestant,” he and other Catholics are quite welcome there. This reassures him. One of my friends suggested that I should tell him that he lives at the “Catholic Senior Resort and Spa.”
Dementia is evil and nefarious. It creeps up like a vine, choking off memories and cognition. It slowly spreads until the person is fragments of who he once was. When my dad was whole, he read five newspapers a day. He taught college history classes and could rattle off facts and dates. Now he struggles to remember who he is — and why he is in some Protestant place.
But in many ways, my family is lucky. Dad still knows me, my siblings and our kids. He is still funny, loving and sweet. If he wants to ask me the same questions, that is okay. I don’t know why Tyson Avenue triggers his mind but I will take whatever dementia hasn’t. He is still my dad.
Kathryn Quigley teaches journalism at Rowan University and is a Philadelphia native. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org