I went to visit my uncle the other day. It was something I’d been dreading. It’s not like we weren’t close. We were next door neighbours for more than eight years while my family lived around the bay. There, he’d been a daily presence – him on his front porch, me whizzing by, busy at something – but we always found time for a laugh. Mostly at my expense. Not seeing him seemed totally out of place. But there were reasons I’d been putting off a visit.
My uncle has dementia. My father noticed the change around May of last year. Things progressed quickly. My uncle was placed into a health care facility before last year’s food fishery began.
I didn’t get out to our house around the bay last summer. Too busy, was my excuse. That or the weather was too bad, or too nice, for driving. I was able to almost ignore the fact that my uncle was no longer my neighbour. The facility he was placed in was over a four hour drive away, so it was easy enough to explain away not visiting. With busy schedules and lives, who could blame me? Months later, he was moved to a place just over an hour away. And still, I didn’t go.
Lost in the past
I did see him once after a doctor’s appointment in town. He didn’t look too bad, was my thought at the time. A little thinner; no harm in that. A little frail, but he was almost 80. Mostly, he seemed himself, only a little slower.
But my uncle’s condition worsened. My parents, who visit as often as they can, provided updates. Sometimes he knew them right away. Other times it took longer or they were unsure if he even knew they were there. Most times, he slept. Getting around was tough for him, they said, and he seemed lost in the past. That didn’t seem so bad, I thought. My uncle spending his days fishing, or preparing to go out, if only in his mind, seemed somewhat quaint. He was also back with his wife, my Aunt Marion, who died the year my son was born. Picturing him like this gave me some comfort in an odd way. There were still times he had his wits about him. In one of those moments he had asked my parents about me, and that stuck in my head and in my heart. I made up my mind to go.
When I caught a glimpse of him, my heart was broken. He looked nothing like the robust, feisty fisherman I had known all my life. He was sitting on a sofa outside the nursing station, cap on his downed head. He appeared to be napping. My dad sat next to him. I knelt. He glanced up. I saw no recognition. My heart sunk. He turned and saw my father, then looked back at me. “You know that girl?” my father asked. “Yes,” my Uncle Sid whispered. “It’s Pam.” I laughed and kissed both cheeks.
I had brought him his favourite; some Big Turk bars. I gave him one. He asked me to crack off a bit. I thought it was so he could chew it easier in small chunks, but the reason had nothing to do with his own need. He wanted to share with me. My heart sored. We had a beautiful visit. We laughed, again, mostly at my expense, and we told stories. We walked. We roamed. We sat. We talked. He napped. He woke. And we talked some more. And then it was time to go.
Dementia isn’t pretty
I’d like to say the visit was perfect. It wasn’t. Dementia isn’t pretty. Seeing someone struggle to find a word or to recall a name is painful. I wanted to help him finish each sentence, dying to fill in every memory gap. Being patient was painful. But it was also beautiful. It was the moments and the memories that my uncle found on his own, without any help from my father or I, that ended up being the most precious of all, because often, they were the ones we had forgotten ourselves over the years.
I won’t wait as long to visit my uncle again. His memories are too precious to leave forgotten.