Changing hands of my father | cup of joe

My father has Alzheimer's disease

My father’s hands were tan with dark blue veins. His left hand was darker than his right, after years of smoking cigars out the window of his 1965 Mustang.

During synagogue services, we often play a game where he makes a tight fist and I try to open his fingers, one by one. Once all the fingers were freed, I would draw letters on his palm and slide my fingers along his veins, pretending I could transfuse blood into his wrists. His nails were always short, with rounded edges, and polished to a shine. This was due to my weekly professional manicures.

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I was embarrassed by my dad’s weekly plastic surgery. I found it strange to think of him entering what I consider to be a woman’s space to do something specific to a woman. But by the time I got to college, I was bragging about my dad’s private rituals. For me, that said a lot about him. My father was a German Jew whose mother helped him escape the Holocaust. For him, having clean nails (and monogrammed T-shirts) was a sign of victory. In addition, he wanted them to feel good. He was an accountant who spent part of each day licking his fingers while flipping through W-2s.

We are made up of our details. The way we hold our coffee cups, our bras, or the way we pronounce Jewelery. His Alzheimer’s began stripping away my dad’s particulars and replacing them with new compulsive ones, like picking fuzz off his pants, tapping his tongue on one side of his mouth, and, unfortunately, biting his nails.

When he started biting, I told him to stop. “Cut it out, Dad. You’d hate it,” I should say, as if the old man might show up unexpectedly. I would rub his hands with lavender lotion, hoping the smell or taste would discourage the bite. I asked him to tell me about his nails, thinking memories might deter the habit. He couldn’t remember getting a manicure.

For the last five years of his life, he lived in a nursing home, in a closed ward for people with advanced dementia. This section of the facility was called Memories. When I first walked into it, I said to the principal, “Memories is a strange name for a home for people with memory problems.” She told me I’m not the first person to say that.

Loved getting to dinner time at Recollections. Eating My dad gave me something to do together. The staff would hand me a plate of whatever was served that night. Filet of fish, meatloaf, marinara pasta. Dad would look at me, smile and shrug his shoulders, as he often did before Alzheimer’s. At one point, he leaned over a meatloaf and declared, “This is rubbish.” I agreed. It was all nonsense.

Sometimes I would bring his favorite snack, Granny Smith apples. Dad always peeled his apples before cutting them into tiny half circles. He always used the same small paring knife and skinned the skin in one piece before putting it on my neck like a necklace.

In the nursing home, I tried to replicate his technique but never succeeded. Near the end, when he stopped eating but still stared at me with his misty eyes, I would rub an apple slice along his lower lip because that would cause him to touch his mouth with his index finger, perhaps remembering the eating motions. In that split second, he came back to life.

Last night there was a full moon, so I did what I often do. I went out and talked to my dad. This habit started shortly after his death, so I’ve been talking to the moon for nearly 10 years. I just tell him what I did that day and if I met anyone new. He loved interacting with strangers. I imagine him walking around in the dark smoking his cigars and asking people what they do for a living. Pretend a esthetician is on the moon, who can still touch his fingers and keep them clean.

Rebecca Handler He is a writer in San Francisco. Rebecca’s stories have been published and awarded in several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at one woman party. Eddie Richter is not aloneHer debut novel was published in March 2021, received a Kirkus Starred review, and was longlisted for the Center First Novel Award. It was recently released in paperback and is available for purchase here. Rebecca, a recent colleague of MacDowell’s, is writing her second novel. As I wrote about it Cancer diagnosis for a cup of joe.

Note More about griefIncluding How Amy Bloom Helped Her Husband Die On His Own TermsAnd How to write a condolence noteAnd Joanna visits her grandmother, who has dementia.

(Photo by BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy.)

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