The paddle was one of a set. It belonged to my father’s dingy and we lost it—somewhere.
My teenage nephew and I had been horsing around in the creek in front of my parents’ house on old surfboards. Trying to balance and falling off. We had paddled out some distance; far enough to find deep water, not wanting to feel our feet sink into the depths of sludge and old crab shells beneath us. We were in a freestyle race headed home, our one paddle secured under my stretched out body, when we agreed to quit. Neither of us had the arm strength or stamina to keep racing and we planned to join efforts—share a board, trail the other and use the paddle. Negotiating the transfer we flipped. When we surfaced the paddle was gone.
Our boards were drifting with the incoming tide and my slow response to the situation meant that I lacked confidence in the bearings I finally took. The paddle lay somewhere on the bottom, between the stern of a 40-foot Catamaran moored for the night in the middle of the creek and a large stone cross on the banks of the town cemetery.
We tried searching with our feet. I tried diving. I opened my eyes, but in the murky water I saw nothing.
The paddle felt like a last straw. Replaceable, but not the point. I believe in miracles and I was pulling for three: a trifecta of health, wealth and personal power. My mother’s health topped the list; was the reason I was there.
Diagnosis and Prognosis
It was 2009 the year we realized something was wrong with my mother. She started struggling getting up and down out of chairs or off the couch. Shimmying her way to the edge, she’d muscle herself up using her arms or ask for a hand. She shuffled slightly when she walked and complained if we went any distance. Her complexion paled and her face muscles lost their animation. She worried that she was forgetting more than she should.
The diagnosis was Parkinson’s Disease with early-onset dementia. The doctors led my father to expect the worst. Ruling out any possibility of improvement, they offered only a margin of hope that the disease might progress slowly. Friends echoed the same bleak expectations with personal stories and their own projected fears.
Overwhelmed, my father accepted the news and did what the doctors suggested. For each complaint, they prescribed a new pill. It soon became impossible to separate the prescription side effects from the core concerns of my mother’s condition. Drowsiness, incontinence, rashes, delusions, blurred vision, hypertension, dizziness—the usual litany of disclaimers. Each palliative possibly worse than the cause.
My father became my mother’s pharmacist, doling out a dozen pills a day, tapping the table and waiting each meal to ensure that she took them. He stepped into the role of caretaker and assumed all the jobs my mother once managed—laundry, shopping, cooking, scheduling, bookkeeping. He became her lady’s maid, selecting her outfits and helping her dress. Uncomfortable leaving my mother alone, my father scaled back his own life, participating in fewer of the activities that brought him pleasure.
A Second Opinion
He didn’t ask me to come, I volunteered. I have spent my adult life feeling grateful for my parents’ abundant love and generosity; their constant support even when my choices have challenged them. My father, especially, has been on a plane and been by my side whenever he knew I needed him.
By the tone in his voice I knew it was his turn, he needed me, and I packed my bags for an indefinite stay.
The scene that greeted me was grim. My mother was out of it. Anxious and confused, she resisted help and slept most of the day. Friends had been counseling my father that it was time he consider placing my mother in a nursing home for her safety and his wellbeing. When I arrived, they pulled me aside and made the same case.
I am my father’s daughter and proud that I learned to mirror his example of self-reliant, self confidence. Trusting himself, my father marches to his own beat with an infectious enthusiasm that never fails to inspire. But fear is a formidable adversary that overwhelms even the most self assured and life is a series of trials and transitions that test even the strongest among us. Each time I faltered, my father never rushed in to save me; never did the work for me. He’d hurry to be with me—but only to stand by my side; to believe in me; to hold a space while I found my own way.
It’s tempting to want to save someone you love; to carry their pain—but that’s never truly possible nor is it what they need. I came home simply to be by my father’s side. To remind him that while we do not choose our experiences, how we experience them is ours alone to decide. Together we discussed the story that ran through his head, the one fueled by the voices around him—doctors, family and friends. We strategized alternatives, tried different perspectives, considered potential, and over the course of five weeks, evolved a new reality.
Following his cue, I helped renew my father’s faith in himself. I buffered the barrage of outside opinions and pitched in to share the work as his confidant and companion. Together we experimented with weening my mother off her pills, changed her diet and coaxed, cajoled and coerced her into exercising. We accepted her choice when she wouldn’t. We rubbed her feet. We meditated. We laughed together.
It took patience and perseverance. Our efforts met with victory one day and setbacks the next. When one of us lost composure, the other stepped in. Alone, we’d repeat to each other, “we never give up.” In her presence, we’d smile and wink.
I Never Give Up
I felt terrible telling my father that we lost his paddle. It was only a minor worry on a lengthy list, but a needless one, and like stubbing your toe when you’re in a bad mood, minor feels major when you’re at your breaking point.
Always gracious, my father said his usual, “not to worry,” and the next day we went online to find a replacement. We found one, but also agreed to one final search. We checked the paper and made a plan to row out at low tide the following day.
The Catamaran was gone, leaving us with no fixed coordinates to narrow the search, but I estimated the location, hopped overboard, and pulling the boat and my father along, felt along the bottom in my Crocs. I planned to walk a grid covering the square footage of a football field and a half, but it wasn’t that easy and I soon gave in to walking aimlessly. After 20 fruitless minutes in the hot sun, my father announced, “I think I’ll order a new one.” Without hesitating, I turned to him aghast: “Don’t you know I never give up.” Giving up felt like giving up on everything and that I couldn’t bear.
I turned back to my search, but said a prayer for guidance. Was I crazy? Being stubborn? Deluded? I asked for a sign, should I quit or keep looking? A few moments passed and the cry of an osprey caught my attention. The bird in flight carried a fish in its talons—a fish it nearly lost, but managed to catch again. My sign. The bird had its prize; I would have mine. The water was up to my neck. One step. Another. I felt the unmistakeable flat side of a plastic paddle. Had the paddle been turned, had I stepped on the handle, it’s not likely I would have distinguished it from the general debris of rock and shell on the bottom. My foot landed exactly where it needed to, one moment before I stepped out of my depth.
A Life Worth Living
The paddle belongs to the dingy that belongs to my father’s sailboat. The name of his boat is Harmony. Harmony implies a complement of perspectives. My father encouraged my faith in myself, my mother challenged and pushed me. I needed both. Love, like life, is a blend of work and reward. I came to give back to my father; I left fulfilled by my mother.
Growing up I tried to reason with my mother, to make her understand me; to share my perspective. I never questioned her love, but I needed her to see and allow me the way my father could. To appreciate my choices, to acknowledge my enthusiasm. I thought I healed myself when I learned to care less; to let go.
Dementia has rules. Like customer service, the person with dementia is always right. No arguing allowed. You can redirect, but not reason. No exceptions. This is great practice for life.
In truth, we all live in our own realities, no two perspectives are ever entirely the same. Believing they can be—that they need to be—is a delusion; an everyday form of dementia that impairs our potential.
Dementia taught me to accept and appreciate my mother as she is—to give her the unconditional love and approval I thought I needed. My father and I changed our experiences by changing ourselves. We struck a harmony between accepting what is and working to change it. I didn’t find the paddle on my own. I found it because I allowed space for the magic that exists in the balance between trusting and trying; between surrendering and seeking.
In the end, I received my trifecta. My mother still has dementia, but the doctors were wrong—she can improve; she has. Her strength and vitality returned, her confusion and anxiety has abated and my father no longer fears leaving her alone. It’s a different chapter in my parents’ lives—everything changes—but it’s still a love story and it’s one they continue to write together. There is no greater wealth than love and my five weeks with my parents gave me an incomparable experience of fulfillment. The gold standard for a life worth living. And by confronting old frustrations and reframing them, I came to realize that the personal power I’ve been seeking has been in me all along. No longer judging my mother for judging me—I set us both free; free to BE.