When My Abusive Father Got Alzheimer’s, Spoon-Feeding Him Helped Me Forgive
Iwatch him pick up his burgundy cloth napkin, drape it over his spaghetti and meatballs, then fumble with his spoon before balancing it on top of the sealed Hoodsie cup. This isn’t unusual behavior for someone with Alzheimer’s. Still, I ask my 74-year-old father, “What are you doing?” He gives me a hollow stare, his blue eyes as dry as his memory. I unveil his plate, cut up a meatball, then scoop up a spoonful and hand him the spoon. He sets it back down on top of the Hoodsie. I pick up the spoon and offer it to him again, but he gives me that same hollow stare, and re-drapes the napkin over the plate. I feel compelled to feed him, but the aides here at the nursing home usually do that. Though I worked as a nurse for 20 years and fed lots of people, I don’t want to feed him. I consider my reluctance. Am I afraid of the final admission that the parent has become the child?
The truth is, I’m terrified of feeding my father. Sitting in the naturally-lit dining room beside him, close enough for his hand to strike my face, an image flies back to me from the past. I’m 13; my father chases me into my bedroom and grabs from the top of my dresser the skating scribe I use to carve patterns in the ice. I dart into a corner. He lunges toward me, and raises the sharp end of the scribe over my head, inches from my skull. Desperate to protect myself from his metallic rage, I curl into a ball, my face against my knees. My heart beats in stutters, in my ears, in my throat.
I don’t remember what I did wrong. Maybe I forgot to take out the trash, empty the dishwasher, neglected to walk the dog. There were other incidents of rage, but I don’t remember what my failures were that provoked my father. The most horrifying memoires are the ones that involved my siblings. I remember crying in my bedroom, listening to my father’s heavy footsteps as he chased my older sister through the house. I remember the time he bloodied my younger brother’s face with his fist. I can’t recall what they did wrong, either.
My thoughts spring back to the present. I’m almost fifty. It’s time I kick my fear of my father out of my mind’s bedroom.
He’s in a wheelchair, and hasn’t been able to walk for months. He certainly can’t chase me now. Alzheimer’s has also had a calming effect on him, or maybe it’s the medications, which are supposed to slow down the progression of the disease. Either way, he’s mostly gentle and quiet, displaying moments of delight like clapping when my husband walks into the dining room, or smiling and patting me on the shoulder when I lean down to kiss him on his mole-flecked forehead. He even shocked me once by speaking to a basket of bananas: “So beautiful.” My pre-Alzheimer’s father was a left-brain thinker, and never noticed the aesthetics of fruit. I don’t recall him ever regarding beauty at all.
In an attempt to overcome my fear and judgment, I tell myself that my grandfather is to blame for my father’s dysfunction. He verbally abused others around him. He once whipped an olive at a waitress for forgetting he had ordered his martini with no garnish. My father, who witnessed these kinds of tantrums as a child, inherited my grandfather’s intolerance and impatience.
So I take a chance. I lift the meatball-filled spoon from the Hoodsie and guide it towards him. “Here, Dad, doesn’t it look good?” He raises his hand from the table, and steadily reaches for the handle gripped between my pointer finger and thumb. My hand trembles as the tip of my finger meets the side of his finger, the spot once swollen with a knobby protrusion from his pen gripping days.
He clutches the spoon, and lifts it towards his mouth, pauses, raises it higher. It tilts to the left then to the right. I wring my hands. My teeth sink into my bottom lip. I want to help him; I don’t want to help him. His jaw juts forward, his neck veins pulsing. He eases the spoon closer to his mouth. I hold my breath. He bites down on the crumbled half meatball. He chews, swallows. I lean back. Breathe.
Again, he sets his spoon down on top of the Hoodsie and drapes his napkin over his plate. An aide with generous hips dances a little sashay over to our table. “Hey, Joe,” she says, rubbing my father’s back. “I thought Italian was your favorite. When you’re done, you can have all the ice cream you want.” He smiles at her. I smile at her too, comforted by her recognition of what he enjoys most: Italian food, back rubs, and ice cream.
“Come on, Joe. Here.” She sits beside him, and ties a clean napkin around his neck, as if he’s about to eat a lobster. “We like to keep his clothes as clean as possible,” she says, looking directly at me. I nod, but feel as if I’m being scolded for my oversight. She takes the spoon, shovels up another half a meatball and tenderly slips it into my father’s wide-open mouth.
“See, Joe. Isn’t that good?” After he swallows, she wipes the corners of his mouth with his napkin. “He’s okay,” she assures me. “Sometimes he just needs help. You can feed him.”
My stomach does a somersault. What would she think of me if I tell her I can’t, or won’t, feed my father? I’m embarrassed to tell her that I’m terrified of doing so. I could lie and say that I don’t feel qualified to feed him. But what kind of qualifications does one need to feed your own parent?
“Go ahead,” she urges. She hands me the spoon. And walks away.
I look at my father, who’s eyeing his hand resting on the table, the one with the knobby finger protrusion. He hasn’t gripped his pen in a year. As a savvy businessman, he filled his yellow pad with the latest land-for-sale deals, the highest bond interest rates, and upcoming foreclosures. I wonder if my father has forgotten about his pen – his blue, ballpoint Bic pen.
He slides his hand towards mine also resting on the table, and touches it. He squeezes, as if he’s trying to tell me something.
“Dad, you want more?”
I gulp down my fear, and mix some sauce with crumbled meatball and spaghetti, scoop it up, then slowly raise the spoon to his mouth. He opens it for me, just as he did for the aide. Quickly, I slip the food off the spoon. He chews, swallows, rubs his belly.
“More?” I realize that I’m not asking him if he’s hungry; still wary, I’m asking for permission to feed him.
Again, he nods, and opens his mouth.
Again, he chews and swallows. I ask if he wants more, wait for him to nod, then feed him another spoonful. This exchange continues a few more times before he reaches for the Hoodsie, and slides it towards himself.
“You ready for ice-cream?” I ask.
A smile spreads across his face like a sunrise. In a matter of minutes, we have choreographed a new father-daughter dynamic.
I visit him again on Thanksgiving. As I walk into the dining room, I rehearse the steps in my head, hoping my tying of his napkin bib around his neck is enough of a cue that our dance is about to begin. But he’s having a good brain day, and he’s mostly able to feed himself the ground turkey and sweet potatoes. When he tires and doesn’t have the strength to lift his glass of milk, I lift it for him. “Here, Dad, you want some milk?” I bring it closer to him, and he grabs it. Slams it against the table. I startle, skid backwards in my chair. He’s over-stimulated, I think. Frustrated. He lets go of the glass and looks at me, his eyes wet and crinkled at the edges. Our faces, and bodies, are capable of saying “I’m sorry.”
Another piece of history comes flying back to me. It’s six months earlier, and my father is hospitalized for abdominal bleeding. I’m standing over his bed, holding his hands so he doesn’t yank out his IV. Completely out of context, he says, “It’s not your fault, Melissa.” I accepted this as an apology for all the times he hurt me. The language of genuine contrition is as diverse as each of our regrets.
I give up on the milk and try to feed him. He cooperates on the first bite. I try again – another spoonful of Thanksgiving. He chews, swallows. This time he burps. We giggle. When his eyes droop, I lead the next dance step. I untie the napkin, wipe his mouth clean – and rub his back. His head falls forward and he begins to doze. In a few seconds, he opens his eyes and lays his hand on top of mine. I massage the smooth spot on the side of his pointer finger until he falls into a slumber.
As I watch my father sleep, I know it is his utter helplessness that has made it easier for me to want to be with him, to deeply care about him, despite his past hurts. That’s exactly what I’ve needed for so long – a father I no longer fear, but one who unconditionally lets me into his vulnerable world and gives me the chance to begin to forgive him.
=Mekssa Cronin ( Previously published here: https://narratively.com/when-my-abusive-father-got-alzheimers-spoon-feeding-him-helped-me-forgive/
Mother doesn’t know who is wiping her mouth.
Mother doesn’t know who is changing her wet sheets.
Mother doesn’t know who is cooking her favorite dish.
Mother doesn’t know who is trying to hold her hand.
Mother doesn’t know who is reading to her.
Mother doesn’t know who is in her wedding picture.
Mother doesn’t know who is the baby in the bassinet.
Mother doesn’t know. Mother doesn’t know.
Mother doesn’t know who is mourning her.
The Day My Grandad Disappeared
A knock at our front door. A Doctor has brought Grandad home. Grandad has gone into a Doctors believing he has an appointment.
Grandad goes for a paper, for the footie pages. As he does everyday, dressed immaculately, jacket, waistcoat, tie, black shoes shining.
Nana and he arrive a couple of days ago to help Dad again in caring for Mam, who is fighting Breast Cancer. Always a quiet man. Keeps himself to himself. Even when I am a child and we go to see the latest James Bond he says very little. He talks footie but I am not into that. He does Littlewoods Pools and Spot the Ball.
He comes in from sorting at the Post Office, walks through the lounge door, bangs the door with one hand as his other hand grabs his nose and laughs. He is good, we laugh too.
Grandad is very late. Grandad left three hours ago. Nana wants to call local hospitals fearing he has been knocked down. Dad drives around the village, pops into the newsagents. Grandad has not bought his paper.
My grandad suffers illnesses. Among my late Nanas belongings I discover a note he has written.
Ellesmere Port. Pneumonia May 1942 Dec 1942
When I had been in the army a year my health began to deteriate I had Pneumonia twice in six months The last time I almost lost my life They sent for my wife and sat with me alnight When I was twenty two I had mumps in hospital again I was never rid of styes in my eyes having to go in hospital again as Both my eyes closed. Had pains in my Back although I didn’t go in hospital I was put on light duties for a fortnight When I was on leave I saw my own doctor who gave me injection in my Back I have a disabled Badge in my car and am under hospital care as an outpatient for my stomach another specialist for my chest.
The note appears to have been written sometime later, perhaps as evidence for a new doctor.
In a 1993 poetry anthology ‘Rats For Love:The Book’ my poem ‘Bait’ describes the banter between Nana and Grandad. It describes how she felt about his forgetfulness before he was diagnosed:
Married forty years to the same man. Ate with her mouth open. Talked with her mouth full. Masticated his forgetfulness through two romantic lovers between the pages. Cut with some bloodless cold steel then tongued from cheek to cheek morsels of his past with her: Who lost his false teeth … … Ieft his pipe on the bin lid outside … kept new clothes unwrapped for years … did not like driving in the dark … ? She levered chewed events from good teeth, pushed them down to the acid below through shredding walls to feed blood and bile that formed into words goading him to grab the bait. And when he did she hauled him in to be filleted, iced and sold to others as good quality food to be eaten.
The title is a play on words that is not made obvious in the poem. My Nana is born in Sunderland and the North East dialect word for food is ‘bait.’
Especially after Mam dies of Cancer, Grandad gradually forgets how to care for himself. Nana looks after him until it gets too much for her too.
Nana buys packs of incontinence pants as Grandad loses control of his bowels. She puts new ones on, bins the old. Grandad does not help, as on one of many occasions he gets into bed, soils himself, takes off the pants while in bed, and throws them on the bedroom floor soiled side down.
A large man Nana has to bath him, then try to get him out of the bath when he will not move.
He has spells in local care homes, gradually stays longer and longer. A respite for Nana.
Nana ensures he has what she calls ‘decent’ clothes in his suitcase, each piece of clothing painstakingly labelled with his name. When he returns home she is forever phoning the homes about someone elses clothes in the returned suitcase. On one occasion, Grandad walks five miles from Care home to Nana’s.
Last time I see Grandad my wife and I treat both him and Nana to a Sunday pub lunch at Knox Arms. A stone built pub about two miles from Nanas.
Nana dresses Grandad immaculately, razor sharp trouser creases, spotless shirt, waistcoat, matching tie Throughout, our visit Grandad never speaks. We order a Taxi to the pub. At the Knox, Nana tucks a paper napkin into Grandad’s shirt, and when it arrives cuts his roast dinner up for him. Nana talks throughout about daily problems with Grandads incontinence pads and staff in the homes, the uselessness of Social Services. On the walk home I notice Grandads waistcoat and shirt gravy stained and ribbons of carrot cling to the underside of his lip.
I search his eyes for recognition of who I am, from the time I say hello to the time I say goodbye to him sat in his favourite chair at Nanas. My Grandad has disappeared..</
have you collected seeds
of many years, packed,
have you died, and left
the table unprepared.
i have them now in boxes,
a gift, from those who love.
they will bring me work, joy,
an independent air, profound words,
from those who care.
I have slipped, I fear.
Go to touch the burning hot
The scalding pot
I know no fear
Her hand on mine
Our fingers intertwine
A Calming tone
Can’t leave you alone
Not now or in the morning glow
Climbed out a small window
And off to town I go
She was woken by the crackle
Of a police radio
Can’t go on like this
This, incessant raging decline
Painted the clothes on the washing line
Make them look clean
Drive her to distraction
What’s this for?
It’s the toaster
I know that!!!!
But what, is, it, for!!!
They sit on the floor
And weep for what was before
And weep for what lies before
He didn’t notice her gone
But when they played her favorite song
His foot tapped along
With his bride.
Time has it been?
Has it been
So much time?
I have left me.
No, he has left me.
No, they have left me.
I’m single, aren’t I?
I feel I’m single.
Are you here
For a date?
Are we staying long?
Do I have a room.
This is my house.
Is this my house?
I recognise that furniture.
It’s mine. Have we just
Moved in ? Why do you
Make me confused?
Forty two years
And now he’s left me.
Twenty six years
We’ve lived here.
I thought we’d just
Moved in. I don’t
In my house
Eyeing up my furniture.
Carers are strangers.
I don’t know who
Bios and Links
lives in a converted factory and works with elders. She has had poetry, flash fiction or photographs published in online and print publications Human/Kind Journal, Rose Quartz Poetry Magazine, Hawk & Whippoorwill, The Cormorant, Radical: A Lit Zine, Chrysanthemum, Occulum, Flash, Paragraph Planet, and Flash Fiction Magazine. On Twitter @mourapoet, Instagram mourathepoet and mourastudio.wordpress.com.
-sonja benskin mesher
born , Bournemouth.
lives and works in North Wales
as an independent artist
‘i am a multidisciplinary artist, crafting paint, charcoal, words and whatever comes to hand, to explain ideas and issues
words have not come easily. I draw on experience, remember and write. speak of a small life’.
Elected as a member of the Royal Cambrian Academy and the United Artists Society
The work has been in solo exhibitions through Wales and England, and in selected and solo worldwide.
Much of the work is now in both private, and public collections, and has been featured in several television documentaries, radio programmes and magazines.
Here is my interview of sonja benskin mesher:
is a shop asst. Lives in a cat house full of teddy bears. His chapbooks include The Fabulous Invention Of Barnsley, (Dearne Community Arts, 1993). The Headpoke and Firewedding (Alien Buddha Press, 2017), A World Where and She Needs That Edge (Nixes Mate Press, 2017, 2018) The Spermbot Blues (OpPRESS, 2017), Port Of Souls (Alien Buddha Press, 2018), Please Take Change (Cyberwit.net, 2018), Stubborn Sod, with Marcel Herms (artist) (Alien Buddha Press, 2019), As Folk Over Yonder ( Afterworld Books, 2019). Forthcoming Khoshhali with Hiva Moazed (artist), Our Ghost’s Holiday (Final book of threesome “A Pagan’s Year”) . He is a contributing writer of Literati Magazine and Editor of Wombwell Rainbow Interviews.