WINTER SUNDAY: Diapers To Diapers
It was my father who taught me to be independent. When I turned 16, he instructed me on how to change a tire and check my oil. He showed me how to take a fish off the hook. He took me on adventures, walking through the woods, teaching me about trees and animals and how to make sure I didn’t get lost.
I guess that’s what makes it so hard to watch him now, as he gets older and more dependent, and as Alzheimer’s slowly nibbles away at his mind, a hungry Pacman eating a tiny bit each day. Erasing it one dot at a time. Leaving a path of emptiness and some unconnected strands of memories, strands he grasps and repeats, replaying each story aloud, hoping that they won’t be gobbled up, too.
They took away his license last autumn, years after it should have been taken away. He didn’t protest, as we thought he would. Too many times in the driver’s seat trying to remember where he was going had taken the fight out of him, I guess. He has to be cued now about when to shower, when to eat, when his clothes need to be washed. But the worst of the indignities happened last week. My brother was collecting his clothes to wash them and he found a wadded pad of toilet paper in his underwear, my father’s extremely private method of dealing with incontinence. My brother bought a package of Depends, adult diapers, and left them for him with a note, hoping to spare either of them the embarrassment of a conversation about it.
He can’t drive anymore, so my sister-in-law takes him out to buy groceries and things he needs. I can’t imagine him buying Depends on a shopping trip with his daughter-in-law—my father is a very shy, proper, and reserved man, even now. It reminded me of being a young teenager, and getting my first period. I didn’t have a driver’s license or an income, and I was too uncomfortable to ask my father to take me to the store to buy tampons. I did the same thing. Wadded up toilet paper. Pretended everything was just fine.
As an adult, I take for granted all of my independence. I have forgotten what it feels like to have to ask for things, not to have the means to do what I want or get what I need. I often complain about how hard it is to be the adult. I have to pay bills, work, clean the house, drive everywhere I need to go. I have to take care of my own children. Give baths, kiss skinned knees, read bedtime stories, make meals that they don’t want to eat. Ironically at the same time that my father was in need of adult diapers, my youngest child was finally out of diapers. We celebrated this step toward his independence, as all parents who have had to change diapers do. But we weren’t really celebrating his independence. We were celebrating ours. Being out of diapers means that he can ski with Comets, the pre-school group. And that means that I can ski for a few hours, too, by myself, and not on the magic carpet or Lift 10. So I processed the news about my dad in the usual way, by skiing and hiking as hard as I possibly could, until my legs ached and my mind focused on the terrain and the pain instead of thinking about my brother and the note and the Depends.
And instead of just mourning the loss of my father’s independence, I need to celebrate mine. I am going to try to look at this part of my life not as a series of tasks and obligations and duties, but instead as a window of time in which I am liberated and capable of doing anything. I’m old enough to do whatever I want, and finally mature enough to not really care what anyone thinks about it. I am going to relish this part of my journey, the very beautiful part that comes in between the ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and diapers to diapers. Someday it will be me who is in diapers again, me who needs a ride or money again, and I want to be able to look back at whatever strands of memories I have left and know that I recognized, even at the time, what a gift each one was.
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