“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”
— Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Have you ever seen one of those hanging wooden signs that say “Life’s Better at the Beach”? Well, for our family it’s kind of true. The beach is the backdrop for many of my oldest (and best) family memories. Picking up shells with mom and my grandmother. Fighting with my sister. Watching my brother eat sand. For us the beach is a family institution. In recent years, my own kids have been reprising some version of those memories. We’re there together and everything–laughs, fights, cries–seems just a little better at the beach.
Dad at the Center
At the center of many of the memories is my father. In large part, Dad is responsible for the beach being woven into our family DNA. It started with his parents and he had a big hand in passing it on to us. We didn’t really have a choice as kids –we were going to the beach no matter what–but I’m definitely thankful for it now. Dad was always packing up the car, always first to get a beach game started, and always first in the water. Didn’t matter how cold it was or what the weather was like, Dad was going in and getting us in with him.
Things are different now as Dad is living under the tight grasp of Lewy Body Dementia. He’s dealing with the physical challenges of Parkinson’s Disease along with the neurological challenges of dementia. Walking is hard. Talking is hard. He’s confused more often than he’s not. It’s horrible to see but I’m buoyed by knowing that’s not real Dad.
Real Dad is hidden under the cloak of this no-good rotten disease. In spite of it all, we do our best to keep him busy. We talk. We go on walks and in the summer, we go to the beach. He’s not the first in the water anymore and doesn’t do much but sit in his chair in silence–but we’re there together. “Life’s better at the beach”, remember?
Dad hadn’t been in the water since his decline accelerated more than a year ago. I don’t think he’s had his shoes off and feet in the sand since then either. Summer of 2018 was a hot one in the Northeast. This late July Saturday was no exception. Concerned it was too hot for him, I asked if he wanted to go home. “No, it’s nice here” he replied. I’d just been in the water and was already boiling again.
Looking at him in his shorts, shirt, shoes and socks was making me sweat. “Dad, you want to take your shoes off?”. In his hushed tone that’s become the norm, “Sounds good” he said. Off they came. Maybe it was that his bare feet were in the sand or maybe it was because it was so darn hot but next I asked if he wanted to come put his feet in the water. “Yes” came his reply. So that’s what we did.
Here We Go
Holding Dad tight, we set out for the water’s edge. With his walking the way it is, this was a nerve-racking endeavor. I know real Dad would like having his feet in the water, and selfishly, I was happy he was doing something other than sitting in his chair. After a few minutes with his feet ankle deep in the water, I asked if he wanted to go a bit further. “Sure” was the reply so we took a few steps until the water was above our knees.
The water was choppy and Matt and I were holding Dad even tighter now. With the chop getting his shirt wet, we suggested we take it off for him. He was ok with it so off it came. There we were, the three of us standing up to our knees in the water just soaking it all up. This was good.
Next thing we know Dad takes a stutter step forward and dives into the water. Holy sh*%$. It happened in slow-motion but I was shocked. I didn’t know what was going on. What felt like an hour was a second and then up pops Dad’s head out of the water. With a little smile to boot. Few.
What the Heck Just Happened?
Matt still with a tight hold on Dad’s arm popped his head up at the same time. What just happened? Did he fall? NO! He jumped in. He was hot. The water looked appealing and real Dad’s reflexes kicked in. He wanted to swim so he swam. It was frightening, awesome, funny, and happy all wrapped into half a second. “Whoa Dad, how was that?!?” I asked. “It felt good” was his reply. Did. It. Ever.
I don’t see the real Dad very often these days but when I do it’s wonderful. For me and I think for Dad too. We try the best we can with what there is…and some days we’re rewarded with a glimpse of real Dad. When we are, it feels amazing.
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