FeaturesTop Features

The Day Papa Went Fishing

Father’s dementia leads daughter to reflect about her own memories

By Donna Cordello

Donna Cordello
Donna Cordello

Dad and I sat down in the booth and he asked me where we were. And my heart sank. But, by the time our dinner arrived, he was telling me the story about the time his father took him and his brothers fishing.

Apparently, my father accidentally hit his father in the head with a sinker when he cast his pole out. His papa chased him around, pretending he was going to hit him while his brothers laughed their heads off. He referred to his father as ‘Papa’ as if he was a little boy again. And, I wondered, how can he forget a place we went to weekly and remember an incident that took place 70 years prior?

I worried about how long it would be before he didn’t recognize other things — like me. Would he ask me someday what my name is? And, I became anxious at just the thought of it. I also wondered how much of my life I would remember and what years I would forget.

Sometimes, I struggle to find words — simple, ordinary everyday words. I walk into a room and forget why I went in. If I start to clean out a kitchen drawer, I end up tearing apart the bathroom closet. Although I know it isn’t dementia, I realize that my memory and focus isn’t what it used to be. In fact, if you ever heard a conversation between my husband and I, it’s like a combination of Jeopardy and fill in the blank. And when neither one of us can remember a certain name, movie, event or place, we rely on Siri, the genius on our cell phones, who seems to know everything.

Like my father, some of my recent events are cloudy while very old ones crystal clear.  I can remember my nana pinning a kerchief on top of my head before entering church and the smell of the candles. I remember my mom and I singing “Que Sera Sera” together, which is, the first song she taught me. I remember picking berries with my brothers, our shirts and hands stained purple. The music of the Mister Softee ice cream truck permeating through our neighborhood and the excitement of when the huge tin of Charles Chip potato chips was delivered to our house.

I remember how my father smelled of cement when he came home from work. How we would all pile into the car and go to the airport to watch the planes come and go, which was our entertainment. And the very special occasions that we went to the drive-in and always got the speaker that crackled and was muffled.

I remember how the glass milk bottles had a layer of heavy cream on top and how delicious the ice-cold milk was. My 20s were a blur, but I remember being a flower girl in my aunt and uncles’ wedding.  I can’t recall what I was doing last Wednesday but I remember going to my first movie which was “Romeo and Juliet”. And that my first 45 record was “Let It Be” by the Beatles.

There are events in my life I would just as soon forget. The times when I said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing and wrote letters I wished I never mailed. There are times when I made horrible choices. And events where I felt humiliated and embarrassed and wanted nothing more than a do-over.

There are other memories that were so painful, they are like a scar that will never fade. The birthday morning when the phone rang to the news that my grandpa had a stroke. The cold blistering day that my best friend Susan died in a car accident at the age of 23. The night I got jumped and how I screamed and ran away from the stranger who was trying to drag me into his car. The time I came home to my apartment and discovered it had been broken into and the ring my great grandmother gave to me was stolen. Cradling my mother-in-law in my arms when she died. Holding my father’s hand as he took his last breath. And my knees weakening as I listened to the good-bye opera song at my dear friend Denise’s funeral.  Will I always remember the worst moments in my life?

Or will I hold onto the best ones? Looking at the ocean for the first time and feeling the sun on my face and the sand between my toes. The way my husband looked at me in my wedding gown. The moment I found out I was pregnant with our first child. The first time I looked into my children’s eyes and the overwhelming love I felt and all the beautiful times we’ve shared together. The splendor of seeing rainbows and waterfalls and mountains and skies. I want to remember all the times I danced like a fool and laughed out loud.

But I wonder if someday my mind might leave me before my body does. And I think about the blank lives of people who no longer recognize anybody and what a long and tortuous heartbreak it must be for their family and friends.  And, I realize how blessed I was that I didn’t have to go through that pain, because my father’s heart stopped beating before I became erased.

Shortly before the final chapter in his life, I was taking my father for a ride in the country, which was one of his favorite outings. He asked me how my children were. “They are all doing fine, dad.” A few minutes later, he asked again and I once again answered him. A minute later, the same question. After the fifth time, I jokingly said, ‘Daddy, you sure have a bad memory!” To which he smiled at me and replied, ‘I remember that I love you.’

If I ever end up suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, like my father, I hope that I will always remember that I was a mother. And If my memory fades and all else escapes me, that I will still be able to smile at my children and repeat the words my dad said to me…

I remember that I love you…

Donna Cordello, 60, is a freelance writer with local, national and international publications. She lives in Penfield and can be reached at donnacordello@aol.com.