My Dad spent 20 years teaching math for trades prep at a community college. So when the geriatric neurologist asked, “what is 100 minus 7?” and he answered “97”, I knew something was not right.

My Dad loves math. As a mason, he lived and breathed applied math constructing and building impressive stone and brick structures to within a fraction of an inch.

I wasn’t at the appointment. My sister relayed the results of the cognitive quiz to close family members via Facebook Messenger. That in itself was its own source of cognitive dissonance for me. What fresh hell was going to await me in my Facebook feed when the algorithms mined this trove of personal information?

“Where are you?”

“At the doctor.”

“In what city?”

“Saskatoon.”

“In what province?”

Silence.

A week later I am driving my father and his girlfriend through the scrubby brushland of northern Saskatchewan. The part of the province where the prairies give way to the trees. The liminal forest. We drive past the remains of a small prairie hamlet; a single lonely grain elevator surrounded by a handful of mostly abandoned pre-war houses. Like most small prairie outposts in Saskatchewan, a cemetery marks the past of what was a once vibrant farming community. It is the cemetery where my grandfather is buried.

“Dad, do you mind if we stop at Grandpa’s grave?”

“Sure.”

I pull the truck over and get out at the small cemetery containing a few dozen markers memorials and headstones. The grasshoppers pop like popcorn around my feet as I walk to where my grandfathers grave is. I look at the headstone.

I have one incredibly vivid memory of my grandfather passing away in 1974. I am sitting in my Dad’s lap in a chair in the living room of our house in Regina. I am snuggled into my Dad, his arms wrapped around me. He is crying. It is the first time I recall seeing my Dad cry. The next time I would have that vivid a memory of my Dad crying would be almost 40 years later when my Mom passed away.

“Dad, when did grandpa die?”

“Oh, must be 14 or 15 years ago now”

I think I misheard. He must have said 40 or 50 years ago, right?

“When?”

“I think it was 14 years ago.”

14. I heard it that time, clear as a bell.

His dementia has yet to be diagnosed. We’re in the stages of that now. There is clearly something happening.

I saw signs he was slipping when I was visiting him in Thunder Bay in the spring, but my Dad, like most Dads I suspect, has his share of odd and idiosyncratic behaviors and I, playing the antagonists part in a Harry Chapin song, glossed over what should have not been glossed over. I got irritated when I should have been concerned by his repeated questions of when I was coming and when I was going.

My sister saw it earlier. She raised a warning last fall. “He’s not the same,” she said. “He’s vacant. Not really here.” But I dismissed it as Dad being Dad.

But this is not about my sister, or even my Dad really. Those stories are theirs to tell and I have likely probably told too much. You get the wider context. What I need to do here is tell my story and how this is affecting me. Because the events of this summer have been affecting me and I need a way to process what I am feeling. The way I have done that in the past is through blogging. Writing. To find support. To commiserate. To connect. To process. To document.

To remember.

I have always blogged as a way to remember. My mind is a tricky place. Memories get hazy fast.

Which is the psychological mind-fuck going on in my head right now.

Is this my future?

Speaking to relatives, there is some evidence that my grandfather also suffered from some form of dementia in a time when it was silent and unknown. It was just called getting old. And now my Dad. It’s hard to ignore the fact that a family history increases your risks.

Already I question whether what I sense in myself is psychosomatic or real. I forget things. My grasp of language, especially speaking to people, is halting. Hesitant. I sometimes blank and struggle to find the right word. My writing has become….less clear. I find myself withdrawing more, hesitant to take on things that are new or messy or complicated. I have felt my work slip, often feeling overwhelmed and stuck with where to start. Caught in the inertia of disorganization.

Is this happening to me?

Maybe it is the zeitgeist as I witness the minds of heroes of my generation conspire against them. I don’t know. I am sure that has something to do with it. What I do know for sure is that I have an appointment to see my own doctor in hopes of quelling the voices inside my own head. Hopefully to calm my own sense of anxiety.

In the meantime, the hard work begins with my father to ensure that he gets the care and support he needs. It feels like the start of a new chapter.

Photo by darkday CC-BY

CC BY 4.0 In a world completely possessed by the human mind by Clint Lalonde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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Just a guy writing some stuff. Mostly for me these days.

Comments

  1. My thoughts are with you and your family as you go through this. Cancer is the stalker in our family. It took my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my aunt, my brother, all too young, and has touched my mom. I’ve had to stop myself from thinking that every pain or some passing fatigue is something nefarious. If I don’t, it will paralyze me and take my life away through the worrying instead of letting me live all the time I have left. Easy to say, not always easy to do.

  2. Clint, this is such a beautifully written and raw post – thank you for sharing it with me (and all your other readers). Sending love and strength as you navigate down this very difficult path.

    1. Thanks Erin. I think I may have to aggressively up my dog walking therapy as a coping strategy. Or at least to keep up with your step counts in the work walking competition 🙂

  3. Clint – I too want to express my sympathy and concern. You share so much so bravely here… it is impossible to capture the depths of pain and uncertainty but credit to you for doing your best to face them. And of course I wish you and your family the best in working through the months and years ahead.

    I’m wholly unqualified to even speculate on what you report experiencing personally. And our generation is reaching point where bad stuff happens more frequently. But I hope you can find a way to cut some slack for yourself even as you give so much to the people around you. By all means, take your health seriously, but a lot of the troubling symptoms you report about yourself could be triggered by things like stress, lack of sleep, and just feeling overwhelmed by the many things you are expected to handle. It doesn’t help when the wider world seems to be going batshit as well.

    Speaking for myself, after my father’s death this past spring I definitely experienced a decline in my ability to function effectively through the summer, and struggled to meet both my professional and personal obligations. I’m doing better now, but am certainly not “over it”. There are those weird cycles where being distracted or unsettled result in fuck-ups, and a whole new wave of problems to deal with… (and self-recriminations besides). And sometimes we just aren’t good enough at offering understanding to those around us. People who say “I’m so sorry, let me know how I can help” can be saying “what’s your problem?” a few weeks later. Of course, those people are likely dealing with their own pains and crises as well.

    I wish I could find the wisdom to “deal” with the struggles I see so many going through. All I have instead is a sense of helplessness. I’ve always thought you were a kind and compassionate person, I just hope you have enough of those qualities to spare a little for yourself.

    1. Thanks Brian. Coming from someone who has recently gone through a tough period, I take your advice of self-care to heart…especially in a time when it does feel like the wide world is going to shit and existential angst is extracting a larger mental toll.

  4. Thanks Clint for having the courage to share these thoughts on a diffulcult, and very personal, topic. I don’t have great words of wisdom for you but I do stand with you in friendship, always. I look forward to the time we will spend together this fall and winter curling and playing guitar. I think when we take the time to do the things that feed our spirit and soul, with the people we choose to do them with, we create bonds that buttress us for the challenges that lay ahead. It’s obvious from the other comments here that you have a good circle of people around you who care about and are here for you. Carry that with you and draw on us when you need to.

    1. Thanks Chris. The importance of strong social connections as we get older is something I have been reading about in the past few weeks as one of those buttresses. Music, too. So it seems we are both setting up well for our future mental health. The curling, however, could be what tips us over the edge into madness :).

      I’ve also really appreciated Carol’s insights with her experience with her Dad. It does make it easier knowing that there are others out there who have gone, or are going through, similar experiences.

  5. Clint – sending big hugs and warm thoughts your way. This is about as hard as life gets, watching a loved one fade while getting smacked in the face with realizations about your own mortality. If you ever need to talk, I’m here. My dad is in the early stages as well, in complete denial (actually, I think that’s false – he seems aware of what’s happening now, which makes it worse somehow). It’s heartbreaking, watching him struggle for words and memories, as he gets more and more angry with himself for not being able to recall the simplest of things. In the earliest stage, I was almost angry with him as well – why in the hell can’t you be bothered to remember [insert trivial thing]? And then, coming to realize what he’s going through, and trying to help him remember (without just filling in the blanks and talking for him…). And then I catch myself struggling for words. Trying to remember a detail that’s gone – and some of the things that are gone are entire chunks of my history. My wife describes something in passing, and I can only answer “no, I don’t remember any of that.” And it’s happening more often. And I get scared that it’s happening to me, too. 47 feels too soon for this to be just normal. Or is it? And if all I am – my sense of self – is my mind and my memories, what am I when they start to fade? Good times.

    1. Our inner monologues sound very similar, as does the situation with our Dad’s. I have a hard time judging how aware my Dad is of his condition. Sometimes he seems to get that something isn’t right. Sometimes he is in complete denial. Sometimes he gets frustrated and angry, and sometimes he aims it at me for being the instigator. All the dynamics. And what you describe with your wife is what happens here often with with my wife and kids. They describe something or some event and I have very little recollection of the details like they do. It makes me wonder if I am just inattentive or if there is something else going on.

      1. I talked about this with Janice over breakfast this morning. She told me that I remember the important stuff, and that’s what matters. I’m not sure I agree. Whatever. It’s not like there’s anything that can be done – we play the cards we’re dealt.

    1. Thanks Doug. I appreciate that, especially coming from you. I wish I could be a tenth as prolific & disciplined a writer as you are.

  6. Hey Clint. Big hug. Big big hug.
    That is such a difficult place to be… I’m not qualified to tell you whether what’s happening to you right now relates to possible future illness – but regardless, you’re still living with the anxiety of what the future may hold (while simultaneously trying to care for your dad now). It’s, for some reason, worse than knowing you have a family history of diabetes or heart disease, isn’t it? Hence the title of your post?
    I know there’s not much to say to comfort you, except to remind you that medical science advances in these things, and if you’re observant and trying to catch early signs and seek help, it can all help, whatever the diagnosis/prognosis
    . I say this, and my mom (who’s a doctor) recently had an acute phase of something for which there had been a warning but we didn’t do anything (I asked her at the time to see someone and she refused and I can’t force her – I barely was able to get her to hospital when she was having the acute emergency one). Anyway.

    One of the things I never understood was how people talk about how stress is a factor in a lot of illnesses and I honestly don’t know what you do about stress. Gosh, just having children is stressful all around, and that’s one of the more “normal” things for people to do.
    Sorry I’m rambling. But just thinking of you, as well, and hoping for the best

    1. Thanks Maha. I am sorry to hear about your mother. I hope her condition is improving.

      Comments are a balm for the soul and help, so thank you. That’s support.

      I struggle with wanting to know and not wanting to know based on my family history. While a trip to the Dr is the first place to start, I’ve been toying with the idea of trying some genetic testing services like 23andme. I wish I could be one of those people who could easily make a decision and then confidently stick to it. But I am not. I constantly weigh whether I want to know more info or whether I should just let it go and be at peace with it. I am fortunate that I have a very good Dr. who has been a great sounding board for me in the past. So, I am going to ask her opinion about the worthiness of genetic testing services like 23andme.

  7. Hey Clint, I was trying to guess at the story of your trip, and the sheds full of stuff I saw in your Instagram photos. I gathered it was a family member, likely a parent. There’s a zillion things I want to say after reading this, the appreciation for digging in deep and personal for what’s really going on. Honestly. Pain. Grief. Acceptance. Etc. Etc.

    Part of me wants to say, that despite the slow decline in your dad’s cognition, it’s such a great thing he is still here, even not in the capacity of memory. I’ve watched one of my longest known friends (back to high school) have to deal emotionally, financially, logistically with a slow slow decline of his Mom.

    My dad had only 5 months of time after his cancer diagnosis. My mom went in a single moment, 10 years to the day dad did. I often think to myself she did not want to linger as not to be a burden on anyone. Rationally that makes no sense, but we need some of those stories to just move through it. Looking back, I would do more than anything to have more time with them.

    But now I just accept that we go when we go.

    And thinking of your concerns, I have seen my own data spike of Friends Dealing With Serious Health Stuff That Is Supposed to Be For Older People. Three are facing freaking cancer.

    So I cannot even judge a thing about the concerns about your mind. I’d be in the same space. But I also think, “Clint is young” but also again watching from afar, the stuff you do with your son on bike projects and the photography you share with your daughter. That all seems like a Mind that is Okay.

    And when I get my own paranoid thoughts of something like a ache in a body part that never ached, the sound of heavy breathing that turns out to be me, the drum beats I hear in my head hiking a steep hill– I find myself trying to say, “If you start thinking your health is not very well, that you just might will that into truth”.

    Again, it’s not rational, but I want to hold on to a belief that there’s a lot of time on my odometer. And I want the same for friends like you.

    So of course get the checkouts, but try not to spiral into assumed patterns. You are of your parents, grandparents, but not a carbon copy.

    And please keep writing. It means a lot.

    1. Thanks Alan. In a lot of ways, this post is a result of how I have read and watched you handle, with such great love and respect, the legacy of both your mom and dad. I have loved how you have taken such care to document them both and your feelings as you reconcile their lives with yours.

      Enjoy the moment with the ones you have. It really is sound advice for a good life. One thing I have noticed is that, as a father, the idea of slipping into this grey are between life and death – that slow decline, scares me more and more as I realize there is so much I want to do be fully capable of doing with my kids. My son and I have a European soccer tour on our bucket list, and my daughter and I both want to see the Eiffel tower. My Dad had, for many years, talked about traveling as his retirement plan & now it is likely too late for him to do that. So, I need to work on making those things happen while I can.

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