Raised in Apartheid-era South Africa, my mixed-race father had no shortage of scars. But as dementia overpowered his brain, I met a man I never knew existed.
Illustration by AJ Dungo
It was a moment of pure delight. My dad got up from his recliner next to the big picture window in the sitting room of my parents’ house. The music that we always played caught his ear, and for some reason he closed his eyes and started to move to the music. “At first, I didn’t know what he was doing,” Mom said to me afterward. There he was, hands by his sides, smiling, and dancing slowly. Mom and I were thrilled. To say this was out of character for my dad would be quite an understatement. Dad had never been one to give way to his feelings or express much emotion. He always seemed to be guided by a fear that others would judge him as somehow wanting, less than others. But here he was just responding to how the music made him feel. Pure and simple.
They say you should always look for a silver lining in dark times. I would have never thought that dementia – the darkest of clouds – could even produce a glimmer of one. Turns out, I was wrong.
The dancing incident occurred when I was visiting my parents for the Christmas holiday. A short time after I returned home in January, my mom rang to let me know my dad had a stroke. As the weeks progressed, we learned that his stroke had resulted in something known as vascular fdementia. Like other types of dementia, it impeded his ability to reason and make judgments, resulted in memory loss, and magnified his confusion.
While these symptoms were not always obvious, they emerged more prominently every now and then. My dad had been a teacher and when I would visit, it was often the same heartbreaking conversation. I’d ask, “What are you doing, Dad?” He’d casually respond, “I have to go to school,” and prepare for the day as though he was going to do just that.
“Dad, you don’t need to go school anymore. You’re retired. See, here’s the award they gave you when you retired.”
“Nonsense. What are you talking about? Nonsense!”
He would carry around his old briefcase, always placing it next to his recliner where he sat and slept throughout the day, a quiet yet determined assertion of who he was.
As we learned more about dementia, we took to playing along with his reality, as much as we could.
But that wasn’t the only thing that changed. I can never say that I will understand how it happened, but after developing vascular dementia, it seemed like his memory loss had locked him out of certain rooms in his mind. And it just so happened that it was in some of those rooms where many of the fears, anxieties, and worries had been comfortably housed and nurtured for much of his life.
The author’s father at about four years old. Photos courtesy Lee Everts.
My parents were born in South Africa, a place where the complexion of everyone’s skin was key in how their value was measured. Dad never spoke of it, but Mom would sometimes tell us how “it was like you weren’t even a citizen. You didn’t actually exist.” My family is very mixed and Dad was brown in complexion. Raised in a society that officially regarded him as being of lesser value strongly influenced his view of himself.
His lack of self-confidence also stemmed from other experiences. Mom mentioned how sometimes my grandfather was not very kind to his son. “He didn’t always make your dad feel like he was a part of the family,” she told me one day. Mom explained, that my dad was often a disappointment to my grandfather.
These experiences helped to intensify my dad’s feelings of inadequacy and insecurity throughout his life. He was a perfectionist and, frustratingly, Dad always wanted to be right. The end result was someone who was emotionally distant.
But amidst the distress of dementia, in his mind, doors gently closed, locking away memories and feelings that had plagued him throughout his life. It was astounding how his longstanding feelings of failure seemed to dislodge and slip away, how he gradually emerged from his shell.
I noticed it the first time I visited after my dad had fallen ill. I remember when he greeted me at the top of the stairs, he proceeded to give me a hug. I’m not sure what I was thinking beyond shock. Hugging my dad of old was always like hugging a rock – no response.
But not this time.
There were other moments when his transformation was unmistakable. We were in the dining room one day and I was taking a few photographs of something through the window. As Dad was sitting down to eat something my mom had baked, he casually asked, “Are you going to take pictures?”
“What?!” I thought. Here was someone who had never wanted me to take photographs of him, now asking for a photo shoot. Most of the time, I had to sneak around, maybe catch him off his guard. For him to actually pose and smile was almost unbelievable. Who is this person?
A photo of the author’s father taken after he surprised her with a request to take his picture while enjoying a snack.
Suddenly, my father was openly willing to giving me hugs, and when he would meet new people, he’d greet them with a smile instead of avoiding eye contact altogether.
But because of the dementia, he sometimes forgot who we were. As many know, it comes with the territory. I remember my mom telling me about a conversation she had with Dad. He could not quite remember who Mom was; all he knew was, “You’re the person who takes care of me.” It was a touching sentiment, one that would have been impossible for my dad of old to express, someone for whom feelings of uncertainty were an ever-present barricade to his heart.
While dementia played a pivotal role in my dad’s almost miraculous changes in my dad, in all its complexity dementia was an all-consuming struggle that had many pockets of torment. Regardless, my family and I were able to navigate the challenges and simply enjoy the fact that, with the considerable help of Mom, my dad was able to live, as much as possible, a peaceful life.
My dad died last year. While death was accompanied with the heart-wrenching feelings of loss that afflicts anyone during these times, it also brought a slightly different sentiment for me. Before my dad became ill, I remember always thinking that he has got to come to terms with his feelings about himself. Time was getting short. I would have never dreamed that it could come about in this way. For me, his late-in-the-day reprieve ensured that the death of my dad was a hero’s death. He had made it.
My dad will always be in our hearts, even though we can no longer hug him or make him laugh. That is the real immortality that we too often misguidedly seek in other places. We enjoyed a few years with him when he could unquestionably welcome our love. He died peacefully and most of all, he died free.
Such is the magical beauty of a silver lining.
Lee Everts is a freelance writer who has published primarily in newspapers, magazines, and digital publications. She has recently published a book entitled The Placentia Area - A Changing Mosaic on the history of the Placentia area (Newfoundland and Labrador) where she lives. She is currently working on another book related to the natural history of Newfoundland and Labrador.