The presence of absence: Grieving and believing

On the day my father died, he looked as run-down and parched as the tiny Nebraska farm he grew up on during the Depression. Just as the dust storms of his youth had stolen the thin, rich topsoil from their farm, so had the quiet storm of Alzheimer’s swept away his best thoughts from the landscape of memory. Nothing could grow or take root anymore in that barren place. And this drought would not end.

A week earlier, my two older brothers called and asked me to come up to St. Paul, where they live and where our dad was in a care center. It was time for hospice. My brothers had managed the day-to-day slog of dad’s mental decline for two years—the maze of doctors and caretakers and meds and how to pay for it all. A few months prior, when dad escaped his room and locked himself outside in his underwear in a snowy parking lot on a freezing January night, they moved him to a memory unit.

That was a sad place. All the windows were locked and alarmed, and the entrance door required a digital code. Without the rudder of memory, my father and the nine residents in his unit all seemed adrift in a tiny boat on a wild, infinite sea—yet unconcerned about finding their way back to shore. Whenever I visited them for dinner, I wondered how I appeared to them: a dim light off in the distance toward which they might row for a few seconds? And I wondered what I would do, if it were me, and if I could still decide. That is, if I couldn’t recognize my family or friends, or remember what and who I loved, would I really want to be alive?