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Remembering Birthdays

At a recent training for caregivers of persons living with dementia, the presenter talked about what has come to be called “therapeutic fibbing.” In caring for your loved one with dementia, it is important to weigh the benefits and burdens of responding honestly to questions asked if the honest response is going to be troubling to the person you love. The guidance is to redirect the conversation or respond in a way that evades the question rather than distress them with the truth. Knowing that they will most likely ask the same question again, it is deemed best to avoid the hurt rather than re-traumatize the person who is hearing the truth for what seems to them the first time, every time.

In the care of my mom, I am able to follow this loving principle for the most part. But not when it comes to the love of her life, my sweet daddy, who died three years ago. When she asks me if I have seen him lately, I can honestly respond “no.” But when she asks if he died, I have to say “yes.” I see the pain in her eyes when she asks the question, pain that I wish could be avoided. I know that she will tell me that she did not know he died and will ask me where he is buried. But so far, it seems more merciful to tell her the truth about her husband’s death. She never seems distraught when I confirm what she suspects to be true.

Had he lived, my father would be 92 on his June 1st birthday. It is the day that he caught up with the age of his wife, who “robbed the cradle” by nearly nine months. A beloved granddaughter, my niece, Megan, shares his birthday and his passion for gardening. What a joy to us that Megan is growing daddy’s blackberry bushes that she transplanted from his yard to hers. They are doing well under her green thumb and just knowing that his blackberries are still thriving is a source of healing and hope to us all as we continue to miss him. All of us except my mother, who does not remember he ever grew blackberries.

In the recent dementia training, I was helped by the wisdom that you cannot train the person living with dementia to remember. Though I know better, I so want my mother to remember her husband and what he was like that I find myself telling her about him and showing her pictures of him, praying that something will click. Rather than torment her or me, how much better to live now in the moment with my mother, appreciating what the present offers us. It is the wisdom of the ages that the present moment is all that we truly have, and one of the gifts of dementia is a validation of this truth.

During these days of intermittent rain, my mom and I have walked inside the buildings of Westminster Oaks where she lives. Rather than risk a summer shower that seems troubling to my mother who does remember being taught to come in out of the rain, we just walk inside. As we walked along the lower level Parry Center Wall of Honor, she read aloud the placard marking my daddy’s naval portrait of some seventy years ago. “Bill Carter, husband of Carolyn Carter,” she said proudly. “Yes,” I said. “He is the most handsome one up here,” she continued. “He sure is.” I affirmed. “Have you seen him lately?” she asked. “No, not lately,” I responded. “His birthday is soon,” I shared with that persistent hope that she might remember. “June 1,” she said more as a question than statement. “Yes, June 1,” I confirmed. And it felt like a gift. Happy Birthday, sweet Daddy.