My oldest nephew was born during the height of my father’s illness. My father, finally a grandfather (no thanks to me) couldn’t understand this new role due to Alzheimer’s disease, and faced with the reality that he could no longer be alone while my mother worked, I began making the trip to Tucson twice a week to care for him.
As my nephew became a toddler, my dad and I spent Fridays with him while his parents worked. My dad spent his time following the baby around and handing him things he wasn’t allowed to have and encouraging indoor ball throwing. When the baby cried, my dad, knowing something was wrong, would ring his hands and, in an attempt to calm him, try to help by handing me TV remotes, hairbrushes, random toys, and whatever he had in his pockets. These items would pile up in my lap as I attempted to calm my crying nephew. When the baby was finally calm, I’d lay him down for a nap only to have my dad promptly wake him up, and the process would start all over again.
My nephew and my dad became partners in crime. I started locking the front and back doors when I caught my dad leading the baby out for a walk. I began to pay attention to what my dad had in his pockets because, more often than not, there would be a golf ball that my nephew used as a weapon to throw at my shins and forehead. The locked back door kept my father from helping himself to a bucket of golf balls he kept in his workshop.
As the days went on, my nephew was running instead of walking and my father became harder to contain. We’d leave the house and drive around Tucson looking for entertainment. Once, at a Best Buy, my nephew, who liked to throw everything, chucked his bottle at a computer display and my father at the top of his lungs yelled “Touchdown!” I’ll admit that in the early days of my father’s illness I spent a lot of time being apologetic and embarrassed, but during this moment I cheered and laughed and then got the hell out of there.
During our Fridays together, we spent many hours at the park until I realized I couldn’t handle both my toddler nephew and my dad going berserk, so we mostly rode around seeing what we could see and, on good days, going to the art museum and playing at the splash pad. The one and only time I took them both through the drive-in car wash ended with both my dad and nephew screaming and trying to escape while suds were being hurled at the car.
On quiet days I’d give my dad his guitar and he would play songs and sing while my nephew danced. No matter how bad my dad got, he always remembered songs and chords. His voice was strong, and his fingers glided between the strings. It was there in these brief moments that my nephew got a glimpse of the man he used to be.
My dad didn’t live to see his second and third grandchildren. Alzheimer’s took him in 2017. He did get a chance to be called Tata even though he had no idea who that little guy was.
I recently sat in for my dad during Grandparents Day at my nephew’s school. He’s in the third grade now. I sat in his tiny chair and listened as grandmas and grandpas gave presentations about their past lives. There was one grandpa, flanked proudly by a little red-headed boy (undoubtedly related to him), who pulled out ratchet straps from a backpack. He laid them across the tables and let the kids roll and unroll the straps across the floor. He had been a truck driver. He was a hit. My dad was a heavy equipment operator and a foreman. He had a whole shop full of ratchet straps and damn it, he should have been there.
October 28, 2023 is the Walk to End Alzheimer’s and my family and I walk to raise money for a cure. If you’d like to help, go to act.alz.org
Cassina Farley can be contacted at email@example.com