My father would have celebrated his 80th birthday January 23. I think of him every day, but especially on that day because it reminds me of what a childlike love he had for birthdays. Whereas most people want to forget birthdays as they age, my father wanted all the bells and whistles — singing at the restaurant, a big cake, gifts — and he would grin that charming grin of his that never faded even as dementia set in.
When we moved him to San Francisco so I could take care of him, I realized that caring for a parent with dementia was much more difficult than I could have imagined. The roles had reversed: He had become the child, and I had become the parent. My father was an active man throughout his life — he traveled with the circus, joined the Navy, nearly made the Boston Red Sox, and coached high school sports. He also loved adventure, something that, unfortunately, was the source of much tension between us those last few months. The doctors at the Veterans Administration Hospital had made it clear to him that he wasn’t able to get on buses and go wherever he pleased the way he had when he was younger; that San Francisco was a dangerous city and he could get lost, hurt, or worse. They also made it clear to me that I needed to make sure that didn’t happen, and if it did, they would recommend I put him in a home. That was my father’s greatest fear. When Kickie, his longtime girlfriend, could no longer care for him with his worsening dementia, my father begged me not to put him in a home — and I promised him I wouldn’t. That’s not the way I was raised.
My mother came from a strong, loving Sicilian family where you respected and cared for your elders. My father’s family
couldn’t have been more different. His mother, who came here from the Ukraine, had a Snow-White-like jealousy of my mother’s beauty and brilliance (she was homecoming queen and valedictorian of her senior class). My grandfather, who came from a tough working-class family in Belfast, Ireland, graduated at the top of his class from Rhode Island’s prestigious Brown University and went on to do the same at Oxford University in England. My grandfather was captivated by my mother’s beauty and intelligence and would spend hours talking about medieval history with her, a passion for both of them.
My father inherited his father’s brains and his mother’s coldness. He was not the type to hug you or tell you that he loved you. Over the years, our relationship was often strained. We bonded over baseball but grew apart when I discovered boys. He loved the fact that I had a four-octave singing voice, and he attended every opera and musical theater production I performed in, but as proud as he was, he never hugged me when he visited backstage.
When he moved in with my pit bull, Jasmine Blue, and me, my father was a different man. Gone was the chilly bravado, replaced with a warmth I had never seen before. Part of that warmth came from the fact he adored Jasmine, and she adored him. Every night Jazzy would climb up on his bed and gently lick his shaking hands before curling up beside him. The three of us would watch movies together, Jazzy growling and barking every time an animal came onscreen. He called her his “granddog” and he loved her gentle nature, clownish personality, and beautiful light blue eyes that looked eerily similar to his. As with most pit bulls, Jazzy was an incredibly sensitive dog. Kickie had been afraid that she might knock over my frail father because she was so big, but that never happened. Jazzy seemed well aware of my father’s frailty, even learning to wait at the top and bottom of the stairs until he made it all the way and gave her the OK to join him.
One stormy January day, a week from my father’s 76th birthday, I heard Jazzy barking as I prepared lunch upstairs. She had been watching A Christmas Carol with my father, the 1951 version with Alastair Sims, his favorite film, and one that I kept recorded so he could watch it all year. Jazzy rarely barked, so I immediately knew something was wrong. I dashed downstairs, and she led me to the back door of my father’s garden bedroom — it was wide open, and there was no sign of my father. For several hours I called all of his favorite places and finally found him at Fishermen’s Grotto on the wharf. Owner Mike Geraldi, a longtime family friend, told me my father had been there all afternoon. Even though he had dementia, my father could still be cunning — he told Mike that I knew he was there and then promptly tried to convince all of the waiters to bring him a carafe of wine or a beer. Everyone at the Grotto knew that my father was no longer allowed to drink, so they brought him nonalcoholic beers instead. My father sat by the window, looking out at the stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, talking about the good old days and how much he missed Mike’s father, Nino, who had passed away a number of years ago.
Mike told me that he would call a cab and make sure my father got home. Several minutes later, he called back to say that when he went to get my father, he was gone. Another two hours passed as I frantically called the other places my father loved — the Buena Vista, the House of Prime Rib, Cobb’s Comedy Club. He was nowhere to be found. I was just about to start calling hospitals when I heard the doorbell ring. It was a police officer.
As I stepped out into the rainy night, I could see the squad car in my driveway and, in the backseat, my father wearing his favorite little cap and grinning from ear to ear. The officer informed me that an alert Muni driver had summoned him and his partner after realizing my father was lost. He had managed to get all the way to Haight Street, just down the hill from where we lived, but he confessed to the officers that he didn’t know where he was. One of them noticed a pair of dog tags around my father’s neck. I had his name and address inscribed on one of the tags and my name and cell phone number on the other. My father loved wearing the dog tags because it reminded him of his Navy days. The officers didn’t see the second tag, but the first one had his address, so they drove him home.
Once inside the house, I helped my father out of his wet clothes and into his pajamas. “I had a good time today,” my father said casually. “I had fun with those guys.”
“What guys?” I asked.
“The guys who brought me home,” he said, smiling. “It was fun riding in their car.”
All of the anger and worry of the day came to the surface, and I began to seethe. “Fun? You thought today was fun? It wasn’t fun for me! The doctors at the VA told you that if you wandered off you would have to go into a home!”
Jazzy, who was waiting for their nightly ritual, slinked off the bed and hid behind one side of it, her tail tucked firmly between her legs. “I’m not mad at you, Jazzy,” I said, trying to calm my voice. “I’m mad at your grandfather.”
As I helped my father into bed, I noticed he was crying; then he started to sob. “Please don’t put me in a home!” he begged. I was so angry that I didn’t say a word. Jazzy tentatively came from her hiding place and got onto the bed with my father. She crawled on her belly toward him and began gingerly licking the tears from his face. “That tickles, Jazzy,” my father said, laughing. Her tail went thump-thump-thump on the mattress. The more he laughed the more she licked and the faster her tail went. I grabbed my camera and took a photo; then I started to laugh, too. Jazzy laid her head on my father’s chest and took a deep sigh. He put his arm around her, and I put my arm around him.
“Please Daddy, promise me you won’t do that again,” I said, touching his shaking hands.
“I promise,” he replied.
I helped him take his medicine, and I plumped his pillows until he was comfortable. “What do you want to watch?” I asked, grabbing the remote and settling into the rocking chair beside his bed.
“A Christmas Carol,” he answered. “The one with Alastair Sims. It’s the only good one, you know.”
“I know,” I replied. I glanced over at my father, but he had already fallen asleep, his arm around Jazzy as they snored in unison. I shut off the TV and, before going upstairs, leaned over to kiss both of them on the forehead. “Goodnight you two,” I whispered. Jazzy’s tail went thump-thump-thump.