My Dad Is Forgetting Who I Am. This Is How It’s Changing Our Relationship

I was never a perfect son, and he wasn’t a perfect father. But as dementia crumbles his mind, none of that matters. All that matters now is being present, writes Rob Kazandjian.
Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author

I imagine my dad standing in a long corridor. His memories are lightbulbs above his head. Those closest to him have blown already. The ones further away still offer a little light and warmth. They’ll burn out soon enough. Then it’ll be darkness. This is how he will forget me.

Age has done a number on him. His dark-honey skin has lost its sweet glow and vigour. Less time spent in the park, boying off big muscle men and elastic teenagers alike with his basketball skills – coupled with an insistence on dressing for an Arctic expedition whatever the weather – has seen to that. His shoulders, once broad enough to carry our family’s history, are now slumped by burdens he can’t quite find the words for. His nose is as proudly Armenian as ever, but his eyes now resemble a pair of milky lakes; I can no longer see beneath their cloudy surface, making it impossible to grasp the confusion bubbling in their depths.

My old man’s anger, which I found equally impressive and terrifying as a boy, has been dampened. Impressive when it was aimed at the politicians dressing up their hate on our television, or a fully grown man who tried taking me for a dickhead on the roads. Terrifying when I was in fact being a dickhead on the roads. Was it his booming voice or his hurtling fist which left craters in my bedroom door? Today, he turns this diluted anger almost exclusively inwards – when he’s struggling to tie his shoelaces, or finds himself lost between the three languages he once spoke so effortlessly.

My dad is a dying planet and I am the moon, a powerless observer to his fate. I can’t break free from his pull – I can’t stop writing about my relationship with him and the dementia he lives with.

He forgets lots of things. He forgets to put our dog’s lead on before they go on their early morning bop around the block. Sometimes he forgets the way back. He forgets to boil the kettle when he makes his coffee. And he forgets he’s had one cold coffee, so immediately makes another. He forgets to add milk to his breakfast cereal, or cereal to his breakfast milk. He forgets to shower. He forgets my age, and my birthday and that I’ve been working with young people for the last decade, while hustling on the side as a writer.

He never, ever forgets to call Boris Johnson a prick when he sees him on the television, though.

“I’ve reflected on my qualities as a son. I was a proper bastard growing up... I’ve tried to rectify that in adulthood, but have I been good enough? Have I been present?”

My brother and I initially shrugged off his illness and its symptoms. We performed the nonchalance of two young men, unwilling to confront their father’s mortality. It’s been almost ten years now. A near-decade of bemusement and quiet patience, horror and belly laughs. Because the sight of my dad trying to get out of the car with his seat-belt still securely fastened, and then floundering like a giant carp, is some funny shit.

Along with the sadness and palliative laughter, I’ve spent endless hours reflecting.

I’ve reflected on my qualities as a son. I was a proper bastard growing up, causing my parents a whole bag of shame and stress, choosing detentions, suspensions, drugs and roadside scraps for no good reason other than that’s what I thought men do. I’ve tried to rectify that in adulthood, but have I been good enough? Have I been present?

I’ve considered my old man’s qualities as a father too. After waiting twenty-odd years for him to stop spending precious hour upon hour in the bookies, he finally has. He’s forgotten what he needs to do to place a bet. There’s nothing sweet about this. The taste in the back of my throat is overwhelmingly bitter when only now he tells me he doesn’t want to make betting an everyday thing.

For every joyous afternoon spent together in the park, or in-front of the television, hauling our beloved United to victory through sheer force of will, there were those lost to the allure of the betting shop. How I despised those smoke-filled beacons of fluorescent light, blighting every corner in my ends with their ugly glow.

The author and his father
The author and his father

He was often with us in body, but not spirit, his mind clearly mulling over long shots, spread bets and sure things. Can you really be present if your mind is elsewhere?

Watching films together in our narrow living room was the perfect remedy for any absent mindedness, my dad contemplatively sipping a can of Budweiser as the story unfolded before us, Marley the cat stretched out beneath the electric strip heater.

The films we watched together were the learning resources my dad used to teach me the lessons of masculinity that were taught to him decades earlier. Think physical prowess, power and strength. Think Wesley Snipes axe kicking fools in Passenger 57, Arnie and “Get to the chopper!”

The Karate Kid trilogy was my absolute favourite. What’s not to love about Daniel Laruso Crane-kicking blonde, blue-eyed bullies in the face? Or Mr Miyagi mugging John Kreese off without throwing a single punch, before honking his nose like a car-horn.

If you know the films, you know the original is gold standard cinema, and the third is probably held in high regard by Daniel-Stans alone. However the trilogy’s most meaningful, wonderfully shot scene sits about halfway through Part 2. It slammed into my chest like a Kobra Kai fist.

In the scene, Daniel joins Mr Miyagi on a beach in Okinawa, to comfort his mentor after the death of Mr Miyagi’s father. Daniel reflects on how he dealt with his own father’s passing, how he questioned whether he had been a good son, and how in the end, simply being present, holding his father’s hand and saying goodbye was enough. Mr Miyagi looks out towards the ocean, stoic at first, but as he absorbs Daniel’s words, his eyes fill with tears. The scene ends with Daniel placing an arm around his mentor, a beautifully tender moment where the teacher-student dynamic between the two characters is subverted.

“In the crumbling castle of my dad’s mind, the past has been reduced to ruins. What matters most now is being present.”

Despite being barely old enough to walk to the corner shop alone to buy a box of Nerds at the time, I was already a card-carrying member of the ‘boys don’t cry’ club. Obviously, I learnt that trash from my old man. I was also secretly gripped by an obsessive fear of death; I was terrified by the fact of my own eventual death, and fixated on the reality that my parents are going to die too. The scene overwhelmed me. My on-screen heroes had both lost their fathers. I was destined to lose mine.

I went through my repertoire of ‘don’t cry’ tricks. I bit the inside of my cheeks. I dug my fingernails into my palms. I tried to relive Eric Cantona’s rocket of a goal against Arsenal in my mind. Nothing was working. I stole a glance at my dad, in need of a robust example of manliness, and found him subtly thumbing away tears from his eyes before they tumbled down his bristly cheeks. For a precious moment I accepted all the sadness I was feeling, without shame.

One day, fully living the reality of slowly, steadily losing my old man and desperately struggling to find peace amongst it all, I found myself firing ‘Karate Kid Part 2 beach scene’ into YouTube.

Daniel was right. I was never, ever going to be a perfect son. Nor my dad a perfect father. That doesn’t matter anymore. In the crumbling castle of my dad’s mind, the past has been reduced to ruins. What matters most now is being present – when he needs me to help him put our dog’s lead on before they go out, and boil the kettle for him while he’s gone. I need to remind him to pour milk on his Weetabix and Jaffa Cake combo, and tell him to shower after breakfast. Every time he asks, I’ll patiently explain that I’m 33 years-old, that teaching and writing is just-about allowing me to pay my rent. I’ll smile when he expresses prideful surprise at these facts.

In the evening I’ll ask if he wants to watch a film with me.

Rob Kazandjian is a writer and teacher. Follow him on Twitter at @RKazandjian

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