CRIBBAGE WITH MY DAD

February 11, 2019 by
Filed under: Dementia and my father. 

Not long after my father turned 80, he developed symptoms of dementia. “Vascular dementia,” we were told, “nothing can be done.” After struggling at home alone for a year or so, he was given room in a small residence on Vancouver Island that specializes in care for early-stage Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. He was there for six years until he deteriorated past the stage at which they could care for him. I moved him to Langley in 2017.

Sitting across from him at the Cedar Hill Center where he now resides, Mel Young remains my dad on the outside. A face that sometimes seems younger than his eighty-nine years is topped by a shock of wavy white hair that is usually brushed. He shaves every day. He insists on a buttoned shirt and he dislikes the “hip-saver” padded sweat pants that the facility staff want him to wear, preferring khakis. At first glance, he looks good for his age and retains the urge to maintain his outward appearance. He still smiles and cares. He asks how things are at home or inquires about my ex-wife, even though I’ve lived alone for over 6 years.

Despite his ability to maintain a social veneer when I’m there, I know that he often gets lost in the facility, becomes angry and frustrated with the staff over little things, butts heads with his room-mates, feels abandoned by his family, and is generally confused. He needs a walker to get around but his primary disability is in his brain. His short-term memory is sixty seconds or less and his mid- and long-term memories are fading. He remembers me but some days it takes him a long moment and a hard stare to recall my name, even though I see him every couple of days.

I feel guilty admitting that visits are a chore because we can’t talk about the news or our shared past experiences. Mentioning family either draws blank stares, because he doesn’t remember my kids or grandchildren or sadness and disbelief when he “learns” that my mother died twenty-five years ago and he wonders why no one told him that he is the last of his brothers and sisters left alive. My method of coping with long silences punctuated by repetitive questions is to suggest a game of crib at nearly every visit.

When I was 12 or 13 my father agreed to teach me the game of cribbage. I pestered him to let me join in after watching him for years with his friends. As the eldest of four sons, I often preferred to hang out with Dad and the adults rather than my younger brothers. The game and their chatter fascinated me. I’m not sure when Dad learned the game but I know he spent hours in front of a crib board in his 20’s and 30’s on the hydrographic survey ship, William J. Stewart, in the Forest Service road construction camps, and on the Forest Service landing craft he skippered up and down the south coast in the early 1960s.

It is not a simple or straightforward game containing several layers and nuances, from deciding which two cards to throw into the crib (depending on whether the extra hand is yours or the opponents), how to maximize your pegging points, and then how to count the points in your hand. Dad also played “cut-throat” which meant that if I didn’t correctly count all the points in my hand, and he spotted them, they were his. He was an excellent player and it must have been frustrating to teach me both the basics and the tricks, but I eventually caught on to it.

He always agrees to a game but adds, “I haven’t played for years. I’m not sure I remember how.” There are many things that he forgets, like how many cards to deal, the colour of his pegs, and in which direction to move them. After dealing six cards each, I wait a few moments before reminding him to throw two cards into the crib.

“I don’t want to,” he responds with a petulant inflection and a chuckle. He will repeat the joke with every hand and I will be tired of it by the end of the game.

“I know,” is my standard reply, “you never do,” doing my best to play along.

He finally chooses a couple of discards and, after cutting the deck and turning over the top card, we begin to play. He usually remembers that fifteens and pairs score but struggles to recall that each round only goes to 31. Even simple math is becoming difficult for him but we always manage to get through our game with my help and sometimes, if the cards are coming up his way, Dad even wins.

Although he often asks me the same question every time I shuffle (currently it’s How is life treating you, Ron?), having the game makes it easier to be together. I know I should be more patient because none of this is his fault. The game helps me maintain a connection with the man I adored as a child, resented as a teenager, and came to respect as I grew up to became a father and a grandfather. In many ways he was, and is, a better man than I. It’s very hard to watch him regress, one year of his past at a time. He doesn’t remember his marriage or my birth eight months later. The only memories he can muster these days come from his pre-teen years. Soon he’ll be erased. Scrubbed clean of his past, including me.

He tells me to “drive safe,” as I get up to leave – a typical “dad” thing to do. I tell him to ‘stay out of trouble,’ which never fails to elicit a wry laugh. There are many things I don’t understand about dementia and Alzheimer’s. How does he still have the instinct to be my father even though he can’t remember being my father?

And, as always, I walk away wondering if the “dad” persona disappears as soon as I’m out of sight allowing the confusion and frustration of dementia to fill up space where his memories used to be.

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