There are times we make split-second decisions that have an enormous impact on our day. Sunday morning was one of those times. We are complicated human beings with much going on, inside our minds and in our lives. Sometimes life is spinning so fast that we can’t remember if we paid our phone bill, turned off the coffee pot or locked the front door.
This holds true for caregivers as well. Each 24-hour block revolves around our loved one. When did they go to the restroom last? Is it time yet for a bath? Have we given them their medicine? Are they getting antsy and need exercise? Are they hungry? Do they still remember who I am? How is their mood today? Have they brushed their teeth? Even though they politely refuse, do they need to drink water?
We live and we learn. We look at our past mistakes, our sheer ignorance and we enable it to change us and propel us forward. We do as well as we can, and when we learn to do better, we do better.
Once my Father has finished breakfast, he sits in his recliner and we prop up his feet. He’ll watch TV or nod off from medicine that makes him drowsy and we check on him. Constantly. When I came into the kitchen for breakfast Sunday morning, I noticed he wasn’t wearing his glasses. So I made my way to the bedroom to grab them from his dresser. His dog tags were lying right there beside them. And there was my split-second decision. It’s really an identification chain he wears around his neck with a GPS tracking device. These are placed gingerly over his head while we dress him for the day. He was still in his pajamas with a bathrobe tied around his waist this morning. And chances were good he would snooze for an hour or so in his recliner. But I grabbed the dog tags with his glasses.
About three hours later, I awoke from a nap to the sound of my Mom yelling down the stairs that Dad had left the house. I threw on my tennis shoes and jacket and grabbed my phone.
Four years ago, Dad had left the house on a Sunday afternoon to take a stroll. A stroll that lasted 4 hours long and involved police officers and neighbors roaming the streets of Duluth until they found him, dehydrated but safe.
Five months ago, Dad took off again. Police were called and our street swelled with police vehicles. Friends stopped what they were doing to join in the search. A K-9 unit was brought in and in less than an hour, my Father was found. He had fallen and scraped up his arms a bit, but he was safe.
I wanted this time to be different. I had no idea how long he’d been gone, but I wanted a happy ending after a short search, not one that would last for hours. I walked towards the woods behind our house, leaves falling all around and then headed for the street while tracking my Father’s ID tag on my phone. I couldn’t see him, but the map showed that I was very close. I wondered if he’d taken off his necklace and ditched it on the ground. That’s not something he’s ever done before, but with dementia, you must be prepared for any possibility.
A young girl who lived on the corner met me in the street and I saw beyond her that he was walking down the road about 500 ft away.
“Are you looking for him?” she asked.
“Yes, I said. Thank you!”
I yelled out “Dad!” but since he’s hard of hearing, my cries elicited no response. I caught up next to him and was relieved to see he had no bruises or gashes on his skin. It didn’t appear that he had fallen. He had just picked up a broken bicycle reflector from the road and was carrying it while shuffling in his slippers down the street, a man on a mission.
“Hey!” I said, coming alongside him. “Where are you going?”
“I’m headed this way,” he answered, pointing down the street.
I helped him maneuver his heel back into his slipper, took his hand and then redirected him back home. He was so grateful.
“Thank you very much!”
My phone rang and a 911 operator whom Mom had just called, asked if we needed assistance. I told her he was fine and didn’t look like he’d fallen. We walked down the driveway and sat on the retaining wall so he could rest.
“Thank you so much for helping me,” he said again.
“You’re welcome Daddy.”
I phoned Mom to tell her all was well and as I hung up, he said, “You tell your Mother that she has a wonderful daughter!”
“Well Dad, I learned it from you.”
He smiled and steadied his breath. He held up his hand and pointed down to the shed, saying something I couldn’t quite understand. A minute later, he turned and looked at me.
“I believe I’ve seen you a couple of times before.”
You would think that at that moment, my heart dropped into my stomach. But it didn’t. Maybe it didn’t bother me because I knew he was safe and sound. Maybe his words didn’t shake me because two minutes earlier, he knew exactly who I was. And chances were that two minutes from now, he would again know that I was his daughter.
I’m not sure why his words didn’t bother me. Like a leaf that’s fallen far from a tree and looks around to see other leaves lying around that look just like him, perhaps my Father realized that he belonged with me.
This time there was no fanfare. This time there were no police cars that clogged our street with uniformed men looking for my Father. This time there was no Facebook request for prayer or friends and neighbors texting me and piling into their cars to help in the search. This time there was no K-9 unit or fire engine with paramedics dressing wounds and bandaging my Father’s arms.
We’d learned how to do better and we did better. Thankfully, this time was different.