I’m fighting with my father. He refuses to drink water. Sometimes he won’t eat. He often refuses to acknowledge people, to answer questions, to cooperate when I or others are trying to get him up out of bed, to get clothed, to sit at the table, or in his wheelchair.
My father is 92 years old and suffering from dementia. He has aged remarkably well, but three years ago he started showing signs of dementia, and then he fell and broke his hip a few weeks ago and has dropped off substantially. For weeks, in the hospital and in the rehab center, he refused to do anything. Since coming home, he’s improved somewhat, but hasn’t made the efforts that we all know he is capable of making.
Today, he’s refusing to drink any water. He lives in Dimona, Israel, in the middle of the vast Negev desert. It hits thirty degrees Celsius every day, even as Equinox approaches. And it’s dry. Dehydration is a constant threat. Drinking water is a must, if he is to sustain life, and he fights it constantly, biting and chewing the end of the straw until it’s useless, blowing instead of sucking through it, refusing to hold onto the glass, keeping his lips pressed together, becoming fearsome and belligerent, or pretending that he’s less in control of his faculties than he is, insisting that he’s already drank the water, or saying he’ll drink it later and later and on until the never-arriving later.
He’s a hard-headed old man, and right now, I’m so frustrated and annoyed with him that I’d almost pack up and go back home and be satisfied if I never saw him again. But I know this will pass, and that however difficult this three and a half weeks becomes, I will treasure it. I remind myself daily that if this is not the last time I see my father, it may well be the last time he sees me and knows who I am. It was wonderful walking into the room in the small ‘House of Life’ last week and having his face break into a broad grin at seeing me. He was so unmistakably happy. He’d been told that I was coming, but in his state, it was a surprise he got to experience more than once.
The water thing is difficult. He must drink, but won’t. I’ve fussed and threatened to the point where I’m wondering whether I’m sliding toward elder abuse. I’m Aries, but he’s Taurus, and a battle of wills can last a long time.
How did I come to be in this situation? Being childless, it was looking like I was going to be one of those rare individuals never to have to concern myself with care of either a child or an elder. That is still the likely case – my father’s is a spiritual community to which he’s belonged for 43 years, and it is caring for him now, and will continue to. But I’m getting a sobering taste of a life that so many friends have endured, with parents, in-laws and others, sometimes two or three at one time. I’ve never imagined I could do what they’ve had to do. I feel even more doubtful of that now.
But I’m grateful for this time with my Dad. Grateful even for the experience of changing the diaper of he who once changed mine. It’s humbling, stirs up all kinds of memories and emotions, and makes my own mortality palpable, and oddly, somehow less threatening.