I ALWAYS knew he was a good man but until he started to develop dementia, I didn’t know just how fine a man my father was. As he lost control of his mind and body, something magical happened. His true nature appeared to emerge: dignified, tolerant, polite, stoic, brave. When he was healthy these qualities had infused and coloured the roles and responsibilities he had — as a parent, grandparent, sportsman, businessman, soldier, airman. They were vaguely known, but not felt, by me. They were just Dad.
When all the masks were gone, however, there was a shift in tempo. A space appeared in which we could speak, and listen, to one another in a new way. Even when our conversations had no clear meaning in a conventional sense, their authenticity moved me to tears.
These conversations had a multidimensional quality that shifted my thinking about my family, and revealed new ways of seeing and being in the world in a deeply felt way. My dad made amusing remarks about the risk of looking at an artwork too long because it might wear out; he believed he was living in a lost world and looked for ways to get home; while having a war-time flashback, he showed me how to blow up a train; he asked achingly painful questions such as, ‘‘Did I have a car before I vanished?’’
In rare lucid moments he had the insight that ‘‘the good things in life often come when other things crash’’. He told me how much he loved my mother and his parents, especially his mother; that there should be medals for the courage and kindness of women.
His words had a powerful effect on me. The right words said at the right time in the right way for the right reasons can alter perceptions, dispel fears, offer hope. Yet serious illness proves the opposite; it plays scrabble with the language, creating all the way. Communication, of course, is more than words; what was conveyed was a deeply felt experience, often of suffering, that expressed a truth rather than a fact. It was language from the heart, and could not be faked.
Normal communication is a little different: it might have a conventional logic, a purpose and an exchange of information; it is language from the head, can easily be faked, and therefore is less affecting.
When someone close to you is dying all that seems to matter is the profound sense of love and compassion you feel for them. Everything else fades into insignificance.
I’ve come to realise it’s not the fear of death that concerns me as much as the fear of dying in an undignified manner. But I’m hoping courage is contagious, and that when my time comes I die as well as my father did, having lived as well as he did. In his last months I came to know the man behind the man who had dementia. My gratitude is beyond words.
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