My Father's Dementia

Copyright Lise Liddell


My father’s dementia arrived bearing gifts: the politicians, once the catalysts of verbal rampages at televised Fox News reports, dance holding hands; the stock market, once the instigator of heart attacks and aneurisms, fluctuates with the gracefulness of an easy ski slope; his three children, once doleful disappointments, induce euphoria. 

As I enter his bedroom, he sits in an adjustable bed, the head tilted forward. 

“Lisey,” he says, pointing across the room, “Bring me that painting.” 

“Ok, Daddy.” 

It’s a small, late nineteenth century impressionistic portrayal of a Venetian church, a painting that could be overlooked amidst his collection of dozens.  I place it on his lap. He holds it with his left hand and places his right index finger on the canvas.  I am taken aback. Once when I was a child, Dad flushed into instantaneous rage when he caught me touching a painting: the oil in human skin is poison to paint. I hadn’t known that. 

“Look at this dove,” he says. I move closer. The dove is miniscule: three millimeters tall.  “Do you see how well he did this? And this little girl,” he says, sliding his finger three inches to the right. “And the Father,” he says, moving another inch.  “And look at this steeple,” he says, sweeping nine inches upward. 

“Exquisite, Daddy,” I say, relaxing back into the wheelchair next to his bed. I watch him move his finger like a brush across the canvas, as he studies the painting with the intensity and wonder of a child discovering the cornucopia of colors in the spectrum. Dad used to wax nostalgic for the simplicity of his childhood. Neither of us expected it would return. 

I replace the painting on the wall, and turn to see my father’s hands, thumbs tucked inside his folded fingers, resting on his chest.  Countless times over decades, those hands poured scotch over ice into crystal low-balls, secured belts and coat-hangers to discipline and scar what he perceived to be his unruly offspring, and pounded an antique mahogany desk over business deals gone awry. They also supported him on crutches since a plane crash in the Air Force left his legs paralyzed at age 26, and lifted pens and guitars to write songs. The one he wrote for me when I was a toddler foretold that my little-girl-hood would slip through his fingers. 

At least once those hands served as a chalice for his tears.  At age seven, I witnessed my father’s then to me mysterious anguish as I happened past his bathroom door. I saw him from the side sitting in his wheelchair wearing only white briefs, his elbows propped on the sink, his head in his hands, weeping. I had seen my father rage countless times over the myriad of physical problems that come with paraplegia and his scorching relationship with my mother, but I was too young to understand that those things had also broken his heart. Terrorized by the knew-found fragility of the man I feared so deeply, I ran away unnoticed. 

Forty years later, my father’s hands are curled up like a baby’s fists, his eyes lightly closed, his countenance tranquil.  He could be floating in the womb, but he is slipping through my fingers. 

When he dies, from a house overflowing with art, china, rugs and furniture, I ask only for the little painting. I hang it next to my bed, take a step back to observe, and then grab it from the wall. I find my right forefinger on the canvas, tracing his trail from the dove, to the child, to the Father, to the steeple.