I am on the phone (or was it Skype?) with him and I am longing for the words of acknowledgement and the praise, also for the soft criticism that my father used with each of my publications. They were part of a ritual in which he would receive the book, read it, comment on it with his friends at the tapas bar before lunch, show it off at his cultural association in the afternoon, and share it with my already retired high school teachers and mentors. It was a ritual of old age, of small towns and rural regions, a ritual of living through your children those things that you will never experience yourself.
This time, there was no comment, no commendation, no criticism. There was no reading. "I am not able to concentrate and I need to read a page several times to barely grasp what I read, and then I forget it all," said the man described by his friends as the person with the most extraordinary memory they ever met.
He knew something was wrong.
Dad is doing just fine. Most of the time, he keeps me company in the living room, says mom. And what does he do there? He watches TV!
My father never watched TV in his life. He didn't like it, unless they were giving a classic Hollywood movie "from his youth." He would spend most of the time in his library, reading, listening to music, organizing the world, later learning to use the Internet. He would go to the living room for meals and family meetings. Not even soccer fancied his interest.
There was a period at the beginning of his illness when he was aware of the process he was undergoing. He was aware that he was losing his memory and all control over his own life, over the small habits and routines that one spends his own life building up.
He became scared. This is one of the worst things of the illness, the fear that it instils in the person that suffers it, in their family and friends. No matter how old you are, seeing fear in your dad's eyes produces an inextricable pain in your soul. That fear will come back later.
Dad has turned into a patient. This is a relief for the family. The mode changes and now, the goal is to look after him. There is sense of mission, although they don't realize how hard this mission will be. A young therapist comes home a few times a week and they do writing and math exercises. He has become docile.
He has been officially diagnosed with this or the other. The family doctor seems to have limited knowledge on the subject and it is not clear where one disease ends and the other starts. The psychiatrist seems to know a bit more, and at least, she is able to regulate the medications to prevent the outbursts.
The truce has not lasted. I am told that he easily becomes agitated, irascible, violent against objects and obstacles. He does not sleep steady and he doesn't let others sleep either. Mom and daughter are worried that he will flee the home, so they don't sleep, don't rest, and even worse, they don't know what to do. In spite of the intense love and care, they feel guilty. They are exhausted. Is there a humane way to treat a loved one who is disappearing in front of you?
An afternoon, mom answers the phone. The owner of the repair garage calls to say that dad has walked out the five kilometres to his place and has started yelling at him, accusing the man of stealing his car: Where is it? Where did you hide it? Give it back! At that point, his car has been parked for several months as he is not fit to drive anymore. The garage owner knew about my dad's illness (good thing about small places) and he was telling my mom not to worry, and just pick him up.
The episodes of rage, at home and on the street, become more frequent. He tries to escape home, he spends all the money he has in anything he sees. He gets lost. Sometimes, he comes back. One day when I was visiting, we took a stroll. A man walks by and says, 'Hi,' and I take the opportunity to ask dad who the man is. He is not able to produce the name, but in his now deficient speech, he tells me all his background. I feel some hope. I am wrong.
The situation is not bearable anymore and the family decides that he needs to go to a residence. There are no openings in town and the closest one is located in a village 20 km away. Mom is old and she doesn't drive anymore; my sister and my brother work. My younger brother and I live away; we have an excuse. But them: How many times a week should they visit? For how long? Should they feel relieved or guilty? Fear and pain have definitely transferred to the family.
The first time I visit I feel it: the residence is... a residence.
When will I go back home? Dad barely speaks anymore, but when he does, he only asks one question. He wants to go back home. We lie to him every single time. As soon as you get a bit better with the new treatment. He will not improve.
He is a child now. We lie to him, although I suspect that he realizes. He recognizes mom and all of us, he recognizes his grandchildren, but not other close people. He communicates through his eyes, although they are losing their brightness. He does not move well and is extremely thin.
When visit times come to an end, he does not want to go back into the closed quarters of the patients. Family members cannot cross those doors unless they have a special permit. The pain arises every single time when he stops at the doors, looks back to us and seems to say: I don't want to be here, why don't you take me home? I cannot stand his eyes. I cannot say goodbye.
For 20 years, since the first time I left for university, no matter the time of day or night, dad would drive me to the station, we would have a coffee together and he would stand on the platform to say goodbye until the buses were out of sight. Every time seems like it could be the last. When I returned for sporadic visits, he was always there, waiting on the platform as though he never left. Now he is the one leaving through those doors.
It is late in a fall afternoon and I feel happy. I am working with my students in my new lab. The cell phone rings, I get out and very quietly I hear my sister saying it. Dad has passed away. ('Papá ha fallecido.') She does not say “died.” She uses the formal and artificial "fallecer" because fathers don't die - they just can't. Or we cannot afford that they do.
They want to go through the funeral fast so I will not be able to make it in time. I just know that he will not be waiting at the station.
The narrator of One Hundred Years of Solitude says that a good old age is but the result of an honest deal with one's own loneliness. Seeing the way my father went I wonder: Will time remember its end of the deal?