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first person

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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

“I knew when I saw you, I wanted to take you home,” my dad says to me. He is sitting in his reclining chair, the cushioned seat worn to the shape of his body. I am sitting beside him for our Saturday morning visit. Our weekly visits are familiar yet each one is different. While our conversation may repeat at times or be filled with silence, sometimes I get these little nuggets. Precious words that give me a glimpse into my father’s thoughts.

Selfishly, I get great joy when the words relate to our father-daughter relationship.

My father has Alzheimer’s. It has been a long time since he has called me by my name. The plaques and tangles are ravishing his brain and affecting his ability to perform basic tasks. Walking with shuffling feet across the living room is exhausting. Doing up buttons on his shirt is an intricate challenge. Bringing a spoon to his mouth is a struggle.

When he says these words, “I knew when I saw you, I wanted to take you home,” my eyes tear up. There is a deep-seated memory of a father seeing his daughter when she was born. It makes me think of a rare photo I have of my father with me as an infant. In the photo, he is holding me, a pudgy baby in a white knit jumper, with arms outstretched as if inspecting me. It’s an indelible moment of love.

My father does not generally express feelings verbally, so the spontaneity and clarity of his words surprise me.

Another Saturday, it happens again. His words are clear and bright. The words of a father to a daughter.

He is looking at a photo of me in high school, a teenager with bushy long dark hair. He points to the photo and says, “She’s smart. She can do anything.” I am stunned. The emotion catches in my throat. Does he know the same person, 30 years older with a different haircut, is sitting beside him? It does not matter. In that moment he is 30 years younger and it’s a photo of his daughter. In that moment I feel his affection and it’s a reprieve from my grief.

Our weekly visits repeat. We sit. I listen. He talks.

In the past, I made the mistake of rushing him along. I would hurry into the room and try to hurry him along to an activity or pepper him with questions. It was a learning process for me to slow down. To start by sitting by his side. To simply be there. To listen.

The more I listen, the more I understand that his words, disjointed at times, are tethered to a memory or a sentiment from long ago. His eyes are brighter in these moments. He sits upright in his chair and crosses his legs. He speaks with purpose. He may struggle to find a word but he finds a way to express himself. I am grateful to be by his side when this unexpected dialogue tumbles out. It may last an hour or 20 minutes, or it can be quite fleeting.

Another Saturday, it happens again. He has more fatherly words for me.

“I showed you that,” he says looking right at me and nodding. He gives me a knowing glance. The words reflect the many times he showed me, taught me, guided me. He showed me how to ski and how to make a salad dressing. He taught me to be a hard worker and to be friendly to the neighbours. He guided me in my first steps and in lifting a spoon to my mouth.

Now I bring a spoonful of yogurt to his lips. “You’re very good. Thank you,” he says.

A visit with our care co-ordinator one day made me look at his words in a new light. We were talking about how often he says, “Thank you” and “I love you.”

“That’s what he can give you,” the woman said. “He’s giving you what he can.”

Her insight left an impression on me. His words are what he can give.

It moved me. It also helped me understand more deeply something my father has shown me throughout my life: Generosity.

His door was always open. Drop-in visitors were welcomed with a drink. He would effortlessly host and feed large extended family gatherings for special occasions and impromptu feasts. It’s through his strong relationship with his two brothers that I learned the importance of family. He had almost daily phone calls to keep in touch and he would not hesitate to give money to a family member in need. Friends too were recipients of his generous spirit as he would swiftly reach for the bill on Friday night dinners at the pub. In the community, he volunteered his time and expertise to preserve the historical buildings he was so passionate about.

Time, advice, money. There were many ways he gave.

And he gives, still. The disease has taken so much from my father. What’s left are his words. It’s not easy. It’s exhausting for him to find the right word and say it out loud.

Yet he perseveres.

“Thank you” when I bring him a glass of juice.

“You’re so good” when I help him up from his chair and show him the way to the washroom.

“I love you” when I leave.

This is what my father can give. Words of a father to a daughter. Words of appreciation. Encouragement. Love.

Like he always has.

Andrea Bruce lives in Oakville, Ont.

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