My mom and I were my dad’s primary caregivers as dementia gradually chewed at his mind. I helped them in their home for almost two years, until, at last, my mother made the difficult decision to have dad admitted to the rest home. She made the decision on a Monday, and he was scheduled for admission on Wednesday.
When I went to bed that Monday, I was mindful that dad would only be home a few more nights. He usually woke up two or three times during the night and called out for help, whether because he needed to urinate, because he had been dreaming, or because he was afraid of being alone (he slept in a bedroom by himself). I usually didn’t mind being awakened, but sometimes became impatient if it took much time to settle him down.
I had trouble sleeping, thinking about how much dad had lost and how different it would be without him in the house. I hadn’t fallen asleep yet when he called the first time. After I helped him and returned to bed, I fell into a deep sleep. Then I heard him call again, and went into his room. That’s when remarkable things happened.
He got out of bed on the far side, where he never went, away from the walker he always depends on, and stood tall. He hadn’t stood up straight for a few years, and I thought he was incapable of unfolding himself from his chronic hunch. Yet there he was, fully upright. He wasn’t paying attention to me, unlike his recent habit of anxiously looking for assurance from whoever entered his room. As I watched, he assumed several distinct stances—I remember him looking like a gymnast about to begin a routine and then like a batter tensed to swing at a pitch. He started talking. I don’t remember anything he said, but his voice was clear and strong as a stream swelled by a rain, no longer dammed up with the debris of unremembered words and tangled thoughts. I was delighted; he seemed partly restored after years of progressive diminishment.
Dad eventually climbed back into bed. Oddly, I couldn’t find him in his usual place. As I looked for him, the bed seemed much larger than I remembered. I noticed a dad-shaped lump under the covers on the other side of the bed. Was he playfully hiding from me? I also noticed that a young girl, perhaps 7 or 8 years of age, had climbed into bed with him. I assumed it was one of his great-granddaughters, there because she wanted to spend some time with him before he left home.
. . . Then I heard dad call out. I stumbled out of bed and down the hall to his room, trying to clear my mind. When I got there, he was emerging from a dream. In garbled speech, he said that people had come and taken something off of the wall. He sat up, trying to describe what had happened. His words made little sense, but I eventually understood that he expected a woman to return seeking to be paid. I reassured him that he could call me if she came again and wanted money.
Most of us, when we wake up at night, are able to sort dreams from normal consciousness quite quickly—“Dad’s great-granddaughters aren’t in town, so I must have dreamed that one was in bed with him.” Dad, though, could no longer distinguish between dreams and wakefulness, so the two swirled together in his mind. When he had dreamed on other nights, I told him as soon as he could listen that everything was fine and he should lie down and go back to sleep. I knew that this might be the last dream he would call me into, though, so I was in no hurry to get him settled. I sat with him for a while, trying to draw him out of his dream world by chatting about the nighttime and the morning to come.
Finally, when he was ready to lie down again, he returned to the theme of needing money. He asked, “Can you spare me a dime?”
“Sure, dad, I can give you a dime.”
I went and got one. I put it in his palm so he could feel it, then set it on his nightstand, telling him it would be there if he needed it during the night. Satisfied, he put his head down and went back to sleep. Almost a month later, the dime is still there.
So what was my dream about? Certainly there was an element of wish-fulfillment—I would dearly like for him to be restored, even partly. I think there was more to it than that, though. His getting out of the other side of the bed seems to be a foreshadowing of departure, and the athletic stances he took suggest preparation for the new challenges he would be facing. I see his hiding from me as being a reminder that I did not—could not ever—know him fully, even in his state of decline when much of what he said and did each day was predictable. He was about to embark on a new journey, and it would be his journey, not mine or mom’s or anyone else’s. In a way, that fits with his requesting a dime—who wants to start a trip flat broke?
Best wishes on the journey, dad. May God be with you.