“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
I stepped back and over to open the door to the adjacent room. I reached in and turned the light on. My father’s workshop, a shared space with the furnace, once covered with tools and electronics and piles of stuff that had been interesting or promising or in need of repair, is now only a bare workbench overseen by yards of empty pegboard. I remembered the remote controlled Jeep I’d tossed away this summer, powered not by the required D-cells, but by empty Polaroid instant film packs. My father had figured out that the batteries they contained would power the toy and for whatever reason, he’d kept dozens of empty film packs.
He eased past me with his find, the empty plastic package for the new thermostat he installed four years ago. He put it back on the peg it had occupied before I tossed it into the trash pile that morning. He seemed satisfied at having completed that task. He had no reaction to his empty shop. At least no reaction that he shared, his natural stoicism and silence were a factor in how far his dementia progressed before anyone noticed. I thought about telling him the packaging didn’t need to be saved, but realized that nothing inside the house mattered at that point.
“Let’s get some dinner dad.” I didn’t bother to ask him if he wanted dinner, his default answer to everything at that point was yes. Another strategy he used to conceal the disease. I turned the light off and checked the garage to ensure it had been closed up. The neurons at the back of my head continued to crackle as we left the house. I chalked it up to last goodbyes and the haunting sensation that comes with knowing it is the last time I will be in my childhood home.
We ate at a nice place in Danbury. It was expensive, but I was sitting across from a demonstration of just how suddenly life can be shortened, so I had no qualms about treating myself. I thought about that word as I sat across from my silent father. Myself. It’s a concept that might hold no meaning to me in the near future. I wondered if frontotemporal dementia was hereditary. I did the math in my head.
Seven to ten years for the disease to progress to the state he’d reached. He was sixty three. I’d just turned thirty eight. I might have seventeen years before the slow moving disease began erasing me. My sons were only five and seventeen years was significantly less time than I had expected to spend with them. Would I be on my way out just as they finished college?
I pushed that scary thought away and drove us back to his apartment. It’s packed with those things I couldn’t bear to throw away. Odds and ends better suited to a garage, all stuffed into corners under the sharp angles of the Victorian roof line. I felt bad about leaving him alone, but it’s after eight and there was still a three hour drive in front of me, plus unpacking the car the next morning, the young kids I hadn’t seen, and the mounting tension between Talia and I as our basement, already in a state of post-dead-water-heater-flood disarray, continued to fill up with the salvage from Danbury. I reminded myself that the visiting nurse would be stopping by tomorrow.
I cleared off a chair and my father sank into it. I’m shocked by how exhausted and old he suddenly appears. My father had been a young man my entire life. He was 26 when I was born and I can remember him being laid up only from the rare sinus headache and one wisdom tooth removal. He was otherwise indefatigable, up when I went to bed and somehow up before I woke up every day. In the space of an afternoon, he’d become an old man. The disease that was destroying his brain had finally started to manifest itself physically.
The guilt I’d felt in tossing out all those touchstones from the house paled in comparison to what I’d felt that evening. I was going to have to leave him there. Between his stubbornness that everything was fine and my lack of preparation for his sudden incapacity, I had no idea of what to do next. I ignored the larger problem and dealt with the immediate one.
I spent another hour rummaging through unmarked boxes to make sure that my father had the necessities: plates, cups, bowls, and silverware; his lunchbox; toothbrush, floss, soap, a washcloth and a towel; socks, underwear, pants, and shirts. I found myself once again astonished that he was going to drive to work on Monday, more so that he was still working. I hugged him goodbye and started the long drive home with another carload of stuff. I was certain that I wasn’t doing the right thing and equally certain that there was nothing else I could do.