At the beginning of 2017, I was determined to lose 50 pounds by the time I turned 50 on August 28. I began saying, “50 by 50!” and I joined a Facebook weight loss group, hoping to get inspiration from its members. Having started one such Facebook group the year before where none of us lost weight but had fun connecting online, I’d hoped this time would be different. But it wasn’t. I still didn’t lose any weight.
You see, 2017 was a very stressful year for me and, apart from figuring out my day-to-day life, I couldn’t focus on weight loss as I only had the emotional and mental space and energy for one additional ‘project’ – my father’s declining health, which I hadn’t been prepared for. I became so consumed with his health that I couldn’t address mine, and I could not even begin to think about taking care of myself and losing weight. I started out 2017 being overweight, but by the end of 2017 my weight was out of control.
And this is how it began.
In April 2017 my husband, Lennie, visited Jamaica and called me from Kingston to report that he’d just visited my dad and found his behavior odd. He described what he saw, and then said, “It looks like dementia. I think you need to book a flight immediately and visit your father.” He suggested that I get an MRI done.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Maybe I had been in denial since, after all, conversations with my dad had become more and more difficult. Whenever I called from Vancouver, he said he couldn’t hear me, so I had stopped trying to have conversations with him on the phone. So instead of telephone calls, I would use Skype where there were more waves and smiles and very little conversation. I called it ‘old age’. Whenever I did call, I’d talk to the caregiver instead, and she’d tell me how he was and answer my questions and concerns. At first, I thought he was going deaf. Or I wanted to believe he was.
But dementia? My dad? No. Not my father. In Jamaica, dementia was always associated with nothing positive and everything negative. I cringed at the thought of people saying, “Him senile? The big, bad Mr. Leach?!” Senility? Anything but that, I’d thought. Even cancer would be better. (Yes, I’m not proud of it, but that’s what I’d said.) Every time I thought about my father having dementia, I felt anxious, and my love affair with chocolate was rekindled. I ate more and more chocolate almost every day.
The complaints from my father’s caregivers had begun three months before Lennie visited him. The caregivers said he was forgetful, but wasn’t that expected? He was 80 years old. Then his weekend caregiver said he was acting aggressive, threatening to fight. Sometimes biting and kicking.
“My father? Kicking?” I didn’t know that person.
“Yeah, man. Plenty kicking. Dem say when dem get old, dem ac’ like ragamuffin.”
She claimed he must have been a ragamuffin as a child and was reverting to his old behavior. Oh, so now you’re a sociologist? I’d thought. Surely that wasn’t my father because when I talked to him, he was like a lamb.
But each week when I called, our conversations would leave me uncertain. Was something really going on? In one conversation, he said everyone was dead. Everyone I mentioned to him was dead. His caregiver. His brother. My cousin. My cousin’s wife. Divorced and dead. Then when I asked about his friend, Tony, who had really died a few days before, he said Tony was already buried. He wasn’t. It was a bizarre conversation, but I chose to ignore the strangeness.
Yet some conversations seemed normal. I remembered one conversation in particular.
“How yu doing, Dad?”
“Mi good, Tani. How de boys?”
Tani was my father’s pet name for me, and that’s what he always called me. Never Tanya. Hearing him call me Tani was still comforting. It made me feel that he was okay. That he still associated my voice on the phone with Tani, his Tani, his little girl.
“So it warm up in Vancouver yet, Tani?”
“No sireee, bob. Not at all. Beginning to think we goin’ to skip spring and guh straight into summer.”
“Uuumm. Spoke to Donna recently.” Donna was a family friend who lived in Toronto. “Shi complain ‘bout last winter. Told her she need to live in Vancouver like you, since it warmer there.”
See? Normal, right?
So maybe the caregivers were exaggerating? Or tired of him. Caring for an elderly, sick, morose (Yup. I said it!) person day in, day out must be exhausting. Because aggressive he was not. Sure, when I was a teenager he was, but he had mellowed. They all do. He was harmless.
And I ate more chocolate as I mulled over these thoughts.
Yet I wasn’t convinced he was okay because I couldn’t rationalize every out-of-character behavior. How could I explain those erratic changes? So, I decided to visit Jamaica in May after I had spoken to a gerontologist (here in Vancouver) who confirmed what Lennie had suggested. He advised me to get an MRI and blood tests done — the MRI to see what was happening in his brain and the blood tests to rule out the possibility of a virus. I hoped for the latter. I wasn’t ready to face the possibility of that dreaded brain disease.
So I visited my father in Jamaica in May 2017, took him to get the MRI then took him to his doctor (a few days after) to learn and discuss the results of the MRI, and I learned he’d lost 75% of his cognitive function. Yes. Seventy. Five. Percent. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and vascular dementia. And I was blindsided. Distressed. Devastated. Depressed. I was not expecting that.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised given the descriptions of his behavior, but I was. I hadn’t seen it coming. I’d totally missed it. Lennie and I visited him in Jamaica at least once a year, and Dad had many other ailments including Parkinson’s. Between arranging different medical visits, sorting out staff (helper, caregiver, gardener, etc.) complaints, and addressing numerous property maintenance issues while in Jamaica for the annual 10-14 day visit, I had missed it. The decline. The cognitive decline.
And even though I managed his life and his financial affairs from Vancouver, I hadn’t yet gotten around to the delicate parts like asking him the tough questions adult children don’t feel comfortable asking their parents for fear of ‘jinxing’ them. Questions like: Um … your will? (Amiright???!!!) Where are the spare keys for the tenants’ entrances? When were the last tax returns done for ….? Where is the title for …? Where are the share certificates for …? Where is Mom’s wedding ring? When you pass, whom would you like to give your eulogy? (I know!) Between managing his life and our lives in Vancouver, some essential things got overlooked. And I just wasn’t prepared.
So when I left him at the end of May and sat on the plane, the ugly tears couldn’t stop. I was a hot mess. The woman beside me, though, was an angel and comforted me. (More on her in another blog!) I’d never given much thought to dementia, and it was a brand new territory for me.
What I couldn’t understand and found frightening was that – all of a sudden — my dad just stopped talking and just started staring into space. Between the time I landed in Jamaica in the middle of May and the end of the doctor’s visit (at the end of May), he’d changed. The day before the doctor’s visit, I had spent many hours with in. Some of the time in companionable silence. Some of the time laughing over nonsense. Some of the time chatting, shooting the breeze. Even though I had guessed what the results of the MRI would reveal, it was as if I wanted to hang on to the last bit of the old dad. I wanted to pretend that it was business as usual, and my father was just an old man who was enjoying a visit with his daughter who lived abroad. Dad was hilarious, as he often could be, and I got many jokes that day.
But I didn’t want to mislead him despite his compromised cognitive state. When I had explained that I was in Jamaica to take him to the doctor, he had seemed anxious and became like a scolded child. He promised that he was taking all his meds and that he had ‘passed all his tests’ that the doctor had given him at the last visit. Tests? What tests? I’d wondered.
In an attempt to help him to relax, I had started talking about the various pictures on the wall in his living room. And one thing led to another. Then my dad and I went down memory lane talking about events from when I had been a teenager. We talked about the day we were at breakfast, and had gotten a call that a family friend, Yasmin, had just had a baby. He had left home to visit Yasmin in the hospital, and I couldn’t remember who else had been at the table for breakfast that day, but he had reminded me that it had been Jean, who had been living with us then. That had happened more than 35 years ago, and he had remembered every detail, and I hadn’t. And we had chatted about other sentimental things.
But then it all went south when he tried to tell me again about the ‘brown girl’ he was going to marry the next day. Ok. I guess I should back up a bit and tell you about THAT.
Here goes. Brace yourself.
As soon as I had stepped into the living room of my childhood home, the day before the MRI was scheduled, as I was about to hug my dad, he said, “Yu bring de ring?”
“Ring?” I frowned and looked at Diana, who was standing beside him. Diana was his main caregiver who had cared for him for the last four years. She pursed and spread her lips, while raising her eyebrows and widening her eyes as if to say: See I told you.
I looked back at my father. “What ring?” I asked him.
“How yu mean: what ring? Yu don’t know is tomorrow?
“What’s happening tomorrow?” I had to ask.
He hissed his teeth, huffed a loud, exaggerated sigh, and turned his head away from me – the way he did whenever he was annoyed — and stared out at the verandah. I looked at Diana, eyebrows furrowed with both hands raised, palms upwards, “What –”
“Mister Leach, that’s how yu greet yu daughter who come to visit yu from Canada?”
“Oh, hi, Tani. How de boys?”
Diana gave me one of her looks and walked off. “Yu in for a treat,” she said as she sauntered off, hips swaying, laughing.
“So, yu bring de ring?” he asked.
Again. Back to the ring.
“No, I did not, Dad.”
“But tomorrow is de wedding. What mi going use?”
Once again, my palms were raised upward.
“Whose wedding?” I was missing something.
“Mi sorry yu won’t meet Sofi till de wedding tomorrow. She nice, yu see. Nice, pretty, brown-skin girl. Lawd. Can’t wait to marry her. Can’t wait to get her in bed to just -”
Whoa!! My head jolted. My eyes widened. My stomach flipped. I jumped up from the sofa, clapping my hands. “Ok. That’s enough. That’s more than enough! Daddy! Eeewww!!!”
My head snapped sideways, and I looked at him. He looked straight ahead, while glancing at me through the corner of his right eye with a smirk on his lips. Was he playing with me?
Diana shouted from the kitchen, “Yes, Papa Jesus! Jesus tek the wheel. Hm. I hope yu bring clothes fah de wedding tomorrow, Tanya.” She was laughing.
Then before I got a chance to say something … anything, he said, “Tani, ah proud of you, yu si. Ah love you so much and pray fo’ yu every day. Yes, ah pray for you, Lennie, and de boys. Proud how yu struggle and mek Vancouver yu home.”
And that quickly he was back.
He sounded just like Daddy. He sounded like the man who had become one of my cheerleaders when I had migrated to Vancouver. The man who kept reassuring me that I would, one day, settle into life abroad. The man who allowed me to cry and who dismissed my self-doubt when a university job I had wanted hadn’t worked out and I was devastated because I had prematurely resigned from the private school where I’d been working and hated. (Smart, right!!??)
As he told me how proud he was of me, he sounded like that man posing in the picture in the living room. Even at 72 years old in the picture he stood shoulders erect, in a navy blue suit – head tilted up a bit, one leg forward, one hand in his pants pocket as if saying, “Here I am, World!”
I looked at the other pictures in the living room. A picture of my sister and me as teenagers with Mom. A picture of Mom alone. A picture of my parents’ wedding day from 1963, age-wrinkled. A picture of my husband, son, and me very pregnant – not my finest moment.
And there, beside me, sat my now 80-year old father in the old, brown recliner with more scuff marks on the wooden armrest than you could count, back bent, right hand atrophied from a stroke a few years before, both hands shaking because of Parkinson’s disease. Nothing like the man in the picture.
That was the last true (and deep) conversation I had with him. The very last.
After I had taken him to the doctor, he had become a silent, sad man. I wasn’t sure if he heard/had understood my conversation with the doctor about the MRI results, but he just stopped talking. As I had listened to the doctor basically pronounce his slide into eventual mental nothingness and despair, I knew Dad had seen me blinking back the tears, struggling to not wail as I took deep exaggerated breaths, breathed heavily, and spoke to the doctor, but he’d said nothing. Absolutely nothing. He’d smiled when the doctor had said, “Yu not talking to me today, Mister Leach?” but that was it. Now if you knew my father — that would be pause for concern. That man was NEVER silent. Even his doctor had commented that it was unusual for him to say nothing to her. I mean – I got the gift of gab from him! But he stopped talking.
And I ate more chocolate.
That was May 2017. So in August 2017, I visited Jamaica again with Lennie and my two adult sons. I wanted my sons to say goodbye to their grandfather before he stopped recognizing them, but we were too late. He didn’t recognize them, and they didn’t know the man he’d become. He had become a stranger.
And I ate more chocolate.
Living so far from my dad made me anxious day in, day out. I couldn’t stop eating. And I couldn’t stop feeling guilty. I felt guilty for not insisting that he migrate and live with us in Canada when my mom had died in 2006. I felt guilty for not helping him more emotionally when she had died. For not getting him more support as he grieved the loss of my mother – his wife of 43 years. I felt guilty for not realizing sooner that he was suffering and declining cognitively. And I felt guilty about leaving him with unsupervised caregivers – strangers – who could easily ignore him when there was no one around to stop by his home unannounced. Who would know the way he was really being cared for when I wasn’t around? How could he tell me how he was being treated since he now had the mind of a child?
And I ate more chocolate.
Then in September 2017, the weekday caregiver called me in Vancouver to let me know that she had awakened that morning at 4 a.m., and found him lying … on the carpet … in the living room. She called in a panic, and I shot question after question at her. All she kept saying was that she didn’t know. She didn’t know when he’d wandered out from his bedroom during the night or early morning. She didn’t know when he had tottered pass her bedroom without his walker. She didn’t know how he could have made it into the living room without her hearing. And she didn’t know how or when he could have fallen.
She had heard nothing. She hadn’t heard him shuffling by, and she hadn’t heard him cry out when he fell. He was just there. Lying on the ground. Waiting to be rescued. Helpless. Having recently injured her back, she couldn’t lift him. So, together they had just waited and watched the sun appear, no … rise at around 6 a.m., when it was a decent hour to call and get help from the neighbors to help her to lift him.
And that had really hurt. The thought of my father lying there on the carpet, helpless, like a child? After that conversation with the caregiver, I couldn’t stop crying. I felt sooo useless. That wasn’t what I had wanted for my dad. Sure, we’d had difficult years together. But we’d also had good times. In fact, many good times, especially after I had become a parent and could understand the imperfections of parenting without a built-in manual. We had made amends. And this was my father, and I knew he loved me. And he loved, loved, loved his grandchildren. And I loved him, imperfect though he was. After all, aren’t we all imperfect?
So, after the tears, I ate more chocolate. Then I focused on finding a solution.
After exploring different options, the only solution was putting him in a nursing home. And that made me even more tearful. Which would be the better of two evils – at his home with unsupervised ‘strangers’ or at a nursing home with an excellent reputation and supervised strangers?
I agonized over this decision for three months, while eating more chocolate and working through my emotions with a counselor. We kept getting nowhere. At the end of each counseling session, I’d agree to put Dad in a nursing home, then when we spoke again at the next session, I’d be back to square one: I can’t leave my father in a nursing home. I just couldn’t. I was conflicted with agonizing thoughts. In Dad’s lucid moments, would he be angry with me? Would he feel abandoned? Would he feel I’d given up on him? Would he feel alone like I didn’t love him? Would he hate me? I couldn’t risk that.
And as I agonized, I ate more chocolate.
Two weeks later, the caregiver found my father (again) on the carpet in the living room. Once again, she had slept through his ‘early-morning stroll’. And it happened again. And again. And again. The last time it happened was during the day when he was discovered on the floor in the kitchen beside the stove with his walker propped in front of him. (Where was the caregiver DURING THE DAY, right???) The weekend caregiver had taken a picture of him … I can’t imagine why she would have? To circulate it on social media? To show he was unmanageable? To declare her innocence if he were discovered with broken bones? Whatever her reason, I absolutely LOST it when I saw that picture.
At this point, the counselor couldn’t understand my struggle. I mean: What’s the issue? Your father keeps having accidents and needs more supervision and care. What other sign do you need? I guess the answer had seemed clear to him. And I guess it was, but I just would have preferred another option. I really didn’t think my father would have wanted to be placed in a nursing home. That just wasn’t something he would have appreciated even though we’d never talked about it. Plus, that just wasn’t Jamaican culture. That’s the North American way. In Jamaica, you keep your sick parents at home, if you can afford to. You get help in the home. You get practical nurses, caregivers, a humble cousin from the country, your neighbor’s friend’s cousins’ daughter. You get someone in the house. You make them comfortable in their latter years. You don’t abandon them in a nursing home. You. Do. Not. Abandon. Them.
The counselor must have had it with all that ruminating because all of a sudden he asked, “What do you think your mother would say? If you could have one conversation with your deceased mother and she knew the results of the MRI, knew how many times he’d fallen, knew how vulnerable he was living at home, which would she prefer? Think about it. Having been married for 43 years before she died, she’d want the best care for him. What would she recommend? Staying at home or going to a nursing home?
And that did it for me. I made my decision then.
Lennie and I made arrangements and we went back to Jamaica in December to put him in a nursing home. Having agonized for so many months, taking him to the nursing home on December 23, 2017 was not too difficult. It took us about two hours to convince Dad to get into the car. He wouldn’t budge. He kept saying he was waiting for his nephew whose car had had a flat tire. (Yeah.) It was as if he knew it would be the last time he’d be seated in his living room. But when we left him there at Morningside Nursing Home in Havendale that day, I knew he was in good hands.
Then I had to say goodbye to the home we had moved to when I was 6 years old. The home where I’d sprained my right ankle when I had excitedly skipped and pranced the first day we moved in. The home I visited every year when I was in Jamaica. The home I left when I had gotten married in 1990. The home my sons visited each year when they were on summer vacation and left Canada to stay with Grandma and Grandpa. The home where my mom had had a stroke eleven years before and had died two days after. The home the boys stayed at each summer until Grandma died. The home where I had good and bad memories. Home.
And then I had to pack away my dad and my mom’s wedding presents and stuff (some things looked like they’d never been used!), made arrangements for the movers to get the furniture, gave away some of their stuff, wrapped some items to take back with me to Vancouver, then called a real estate agent. It was time for me to say the final goodbye. And I wasn’t ready. It happened so quickly, and I was not ready! And I couldn’t make the sadness go away because I knew I would be leaving Jamaica in a few days, unsure of my dad’s fate at the nursing home after I left.
So … more chocolate. More ice cream. More bread. More wine. More everything.
2017 was a tough year, and I ate my way through it. By the time it got to February 2018, I stopped looking at myself in the mirror. I’d gained so much weight that my loose clothes had become tight and uncomfortable. Every Monday morning I’d basically say I was going to quit eating chocolate, and every Monday evening, I’d say, “Ok. Next week!” I really kept trying to change my eating habits, but I couldn’t. Not until hubby came from the dentist one day and told me that the receptionist had lost a ton of weight, and I spoke to her. (But that’s another story!) 😜
By March, though, I was ready to try to lose weight, especially after I learned there was a correlation between diabetes and dementia. I had become borderline diabetic, and my father’s many ailments had made me determined to not allow my weight to create health issues and dictate my future. But initially, I didn’t have the hope or confidence to believe I could succeed at losing weight. I was mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted and drained. I could not do it alone. I desperately needed support, so I invested in getting help. Soon my new mantra became, “51 by 51!” And my weight loss journey began in April, 2018. After I lost the first 20 pounds, I started to get a glimpse of myself again, and then – and only then — I began to hope.
I didn’t lose 51 pounds when I turned 51 years old in August 2018. But I did lose the 51 pounds by the middle of December 2018. That’s where I am today. With the support of my husband, Lennie, and the help of a weight loss coach, a counselor, and various Facebook support groups including a Caribbean keto group run by St. Hugh’s ‘old girl’ and blogger, Kelly (Ogilvie) McIntosh, I learned to slow down, manage my emotions, change my thought patterns and self-image, and make better food choices. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m winning, and that has given me confidence to continue.
2017 and 2018 taught me so many lessons, but one of the most important lessons was the value of friendships. These friendships have been my lifeline, and I have to thank my friends for all their love and support. They made it possible for me to get through the challenges and pain.
I need to say a huge thank you to Diane Cunningham for driving me around to different nursing homes in May 2017 while I waited to get the results of my dad’s MRI. I was in Jamaica without Lennie, and it was a tough trip. Diane gave up a lot of time to just be there for me in my melancholy, while driving me around, talking to me without really requiring much conversation from me, and supporting me when I had no words.
Thank you, Karen Cadien, for the tons and tons of research you did — looking for nursing homes for me and asking for recommendations from your friends who had their parents in nursing homes. After a time, I’d become cross-eyed with all the information. 🙂
Thanks, Caroline Dyche, for the hours of research you also put into helping me to find caregivers and into identifying nursing homes too. (It was like a degree, right!) 🙂 You’re no longer just my boss from my UWI teaching days; you’ve become a bonafide friend.
Thank you, Marian Vaughan, for being a friend first and a doctor second. You prepared me emotionally and helped me to begin to come to terms with my dad’s mental state even before I knew the results of the MRI. And when, as the radiologist, you did his X-ray and read the results to me, I finally got over the guilt of putting him in the nursing home. That many broken (and healed) ribs proved that he needed more care than what he had been getting in his own home, and I finally accepted that despite all the anger etc. directed at me from his family members, I had made the right choice. The only choice. No way was it acceptable for my father to be harmed.
And thank you, Donna Millings-Jackson, for being there for me the day I said goodbye to my dad after I took him to the doctor to get the MRI results. When I texted you, you immediately picked up the phone and called me, and you allowed me to blubber while you listened. I was a wreck, and you allowed me the space I needed to weep. And you encouraged me and prayed with me.
Thank you, Karen (Harris) McGibbon, for being a friend and then a counselor and for sharing your journey with your parents with me. Thank you, Sharon Smith, for always looking out for my dad when you visited yours across the street and for always listening … from as far back as St. Hugh’s days. Thank you, Sheron-Rose Daley. You’ve supported me through all the sadness and have been my friend from before the first time our families went to Disneyland when we were 8 years old. I still remember when our mothers left us at that Holiday Inn under the pre-text of going to ‘just buy some girdles’. Ha! Right! We knew, even as kids, that shopping for underwear shouldn’t have taken them EIGHT hours!! You’ve always been there for me. I’m crowning you: Most loyal, caring, and supportive friend. I’ve never taken your love for granted.
Thank you Julie, Judith, and Donna for being there for me as my first Fb weight loss support group when I started my weight loss journey and wasn’t sure if I would succeed.
Thank you, Janice Henlin, for visiting my dad at the nursing home after I left in August 2018, even though you’d never met him before. You showed care and Christian love in action. Your report had put me at ease.
Thank you, friends in Vancouver – Chelan (my on-and-off gym buddy!), Lisa, and Faranak for always, always listening. Sharing your experiences with your parents always helped, too.
And of course, the biggest thank you to you, Lennie, for all your love and support. Thank you first for alerting me to Dad’s deterioration when you visited Jamaica in April and took the time to check in on him when you never had to. You made it your top priority, and I appreciate that you did. I wish he were in his right mind to know how much you’ve looked out for him and treated him like your very own father, zeroing in on every detail to ensure his care and comfort. When I wouldn’t make the decision to put him in the nursing home, you listened to me say the same thing over and over and over and you never did the eye roll thing. And you’ve supported and comforted me throughout. (Even I’d gotten tired of hearing myself say the SAME thing every single day!) You’ve been an amazing husband and friend. (And you’ve ignored my neuroses.) 🙂
You guys have all been my village, and I’m grateful for your love and support. So while I did put in the work to lose the weight, your support made it possible and I thank you, thank you, thank you for assisting me.
Coping with my dad’s health has been much better this year. The nursing home has been doing an excellent job, and my dad’s many siblings have all confirmed this. He’s had a few setbacks, including a broken arm and an amputation because of his diabetes, but he has remained the fighter that he has always been. Despite his dementia, when I visited with him in August (2018) and sang hymns with him, he sang loudly and strong. Even when the words of the songs didn’t quite sound accurate, I was amazed that he remembered the tunes and sang and grinned. Before Lennie and I said goodbye to him at the nursing home in August – just for the fun of it — I asked him when was the last time he saw Lennie and Tani. His response was, “Dem around? Ah cyaaan tell when las’ mi si dem!” (Traitor!) But I didn’t cry this time. I actually laughed. Baby steps, right?
As we approach the end of 2018, I embrace all that 2019 will offer. I know there will be good times, and I know there will be bad times, too. Life, right?! But we’re all heroes on our own journey. We know life will throw us many adventures and curveballs (Right, Mark Jennings?! 😝), but we know that whatever comes our way – we’ll have the grace and strength to survive, thrive, and become stronger.
Here’s to a wonderful 2019. I look forward to returning the love and support you all gave me. Thank you soooo much.