After my mother died six years ago, my father clung valiantly to his rituals and routines, determined to demonstrate he was coping and able to fend for himself.
A favourite tradition remained Sunday dinner at our place. After saying his hellos, he would loosen his tie and hand over his suit jacket for me to hang up.
Then my son Luke would ask, "Would you like a beer, Grandpa?" to which my father would respond, "I wouldn't say no" or "A little something to wet my whistle" or "You could twist my arm," all designed to make me groan and my kids laugh.
When Luke would return from the kitchen, beer in hand, Dad would solemnly repeat his promise that, when Luke came of age, the two of them would have a beer together.
Slowly, I began to recognize that the repetition of stories and expressions was masking the onset of dementia - likely Alzheimer's disease - and that Dad was holding fast to what he knew best simply to get by. It was as if by offering up stock phrases and jokes, we could all overlook the missed appointments, the mixed-up names and dates, the fact he could no longer rely on his once-unerring sense of direction to keep him from getting lost even in the most familiar of places.
In time, Dad's recitation of the pledge became bittersweet for Luke, his youthful anticipation of a milestone replaced by a mature concern for his grandfather. Luke would nod to Dad in agreement and then catch my eye and smile sadly.
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By the time my father moved into a nursing home he had long since forgotten the shared promise.
Luke, however, had not. As each birthday brought him closer to 19, he would revisit the idea. At first, it was a sad memory. But by the time he celebrated his latest birthday, in January, my freshly minted age-of-majority cardholder told me with the enviable certainty of youth that he was going to make the date happen.
There was enough determination in his voice that I cautioned him not to do anything rash, nothing that would lose us the spot we had fought so hard to win in a decent extended-care home. He would simply smile in response.
As the winter turned to spring, Dad's health continued to decline, a range of new troubles further complicating his already precarious condition.
With his birthday looming in July, I was at a loss as to how to mark the occasion. Dad was always a big believer in celebrations, but his illness meant that finding ways to celebrate was becoming increasingly difficult. The political biographies he had once devoured as gifts were long since out of the question. Even a birthday cake was impossible, as trouble swallowing meant he was on a diet of pureed foods and thickened liquids.
But then the beer pledge came back to me. Sheepishly, I presented the idea to the nursing-home staff. When the head nurse called to say the doctor had signed off on the idea, she noted gently that my father's condition had reached the point where the potential for creating a pleasant moment, or for triggering a memory in him while creating one for my son, outweighed any possible downside.
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And so, on his birthday my kids and I headed down to the nursing home, a solitary beer - a Labatt Blue, Dad's favourite - tucked away in my purse. My father was never a fan of lukewarm beer, but I figured he'd let that go, just this once.
Presenting myself at the nursing station, I poured an inch into a glass to be thickened. We then wheeled Dad over to a corner of the living room and pulled our chairs in close. Luke took hold of the bottle, tipped the neck to the glass and said, "Cheers, Grandpa." Then he lifted a spoonful to my father's lips and waited.
Dad's grin was feeble but undeniable. Perhaps it wasn't Proust's madeleine, but I would like to think the taste triggered something deep within him. And when Luke saw his grandfather's smile, he beamed in triumph.
The promised rite of passage played out in a way none of us could have envisioned or expected. It had never been about the beer, though, but about a moment together. And when my father could no longer make that moment happen, my son ensured it would.
As Luke spooned the rest of the beer to his grandfather, he chatted about school and places he'd gone and people he'd met, just as he'd done pretty much every Sunday for the past 19 years.
I was taken back to earlier summer days, to Sunday dinners at my parents' house, with Luke running through the sprinkler and my dad at the barbeque, watching and smiling. And for a moment, all was right with the world.
My father's 83rd birthday is one of the happiest memories I have of him, and one of the last. Dad died five weeks later.
For me, the years of his illness were filled with pain and frustration, anger and grief. My father, of course, was oblivious to that. Luke, in turn, chose to see past the issues that troubled me, preserving his image of his grandfather as family elder, a beloved relation.
In one afternoon, the two of them managed to remind me, perhaps for the first time since Dad became ill, that even in times of great sorrow and loss, there can still be moments of joy.
It was a promise well worth keeping.
Catherine Mulroney lives in Toronto.
Illustration by Neal Cresswell.
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