I came to New York on Friday afternoon to spend four days with my father. It had been a month since I had been able to visit. I call him most days and for about the last two weeks, the calls have gotten harder and harder. He’s been facing increasing dementia for a while now, but it appeared to have taken a pretty sudden turn for the worst. My three siblings are all close by and they reported the same thing — dad was no longer just confused and prone to repeating things. There was a real break from reality.
When I arrived Friday, he was getting ready for Passover dinner with the family. He was happy to see me and explained to his aide that Lawrence, an old and dear family friend, had arrived. She told him I was one of his sons, but he brushed that aside as nonsense. It took me a while to explain, but he eventually seemed to accept I was one of his children. For some time now, he has seemed to believe he has five children, not the four there are in reality. The fifth is actually my sister’s boss, the President of NYU. “Do you think John is confused about the family relationship?” he asks. “No,” I answer, “I think John understands,” and we move on.
As my dad was getting dressed to go out, he inquired: “When do you think I will be discharged from the Army?” And so it began. My dad was honorably discharged from the Army in 1945 or ’46 after having served 42 months. He had graduated from Princeton in ’39 and Harvard Law School in ’42. Back then, such people were drafted and served. My dad’s current reality is that he is in the Army and can’t seem to get out. I decided to go with the flow and took out his Army jacket to show him. He insisted on wearing it to Passover dinner. I saw no reason to fight that. He looked quite handsome after all. While we were in the street, me pushing him in his wheelchair over to dinner, we passed a homeless man in the street, asking passers-by for money. When we walked past, he stood up and saluted my dad: “Welcome home, Sergeant. Thank you for your service.” My dad didn’t seem to notice, but that little encounter just about brought me to my knees.
Despite all this, we have spent some sweet time together. This morning, my brother Rich and I drove Sergeant Schall to Morristown, NJ where he grew up. Being out and in familiar territory brought a lot of clarity to my dad. He told story after story, all pretty accurate as far as we could tell. He really loved the adventure, including, it seemed, a trip to the cemetery where his parents and his wife, our mom, are laid to rest. He knew pretty much everyone there and had a story to share about each one. He asked briefly where exactly he would be buried. He asked if they would move our mom over so he could fit neatly by the Schall marker. No need, we said, he’d fit just fine right next to mom. Just like our dad of old, he quickly moved onto something else.
Tonight, Sunday night, I was leaving his apartment and he begged me not to go. That had never happened before. He seemed genuinely frightened. “What was the man who was watching him going to do with him and where would he sleep tonight?” “There is no man watching you, dad, and you’ll be fine tonight, and sleep in the same bed you have slept in for 25 years.” Tears came to his eyes. “I am completely confused. I don’t have any idea what is happening, but I trust you, so you can go. Will I see you tomorrow?” “Yes, dad, you will see me tomorrow. I love you.”
I know thousands of people have gone through this before and I know I am unbelievably lucky to still have my dad at the age of 58. But it’s hard right now to imagine anything sadder than to see him this way. So, so sad.