Saturday 24 March 2018

'I waited for his death with a strange kind of desperation' - Sophie White on the pain of losing her dad to Alzheimer's disease

For three years, Sophie White waited for her father, who suffered from early onset Alzheimer's disease, to die. And then he did.

Sophie White. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sophie White. Photo: Tony Gavin

In the five years I have written about my life in this magazine, I have rarely mentioned my father. On other celebration days like Easter and Mother's Day, I would theme my food column, The Domestic, but I'd ignore Father's Day. I neatly wrote him out of that little documentation of my life.

And it wasn't that it was too painful to write about him. It was that I thought that I was done with him. Even though he lived on in a state of silence and probably unknown pain, I switched off. I hardened myself to him and his suffering.

Sophie White
Sophie White

I sat by his chair - and then, later, his bed, after he could no longer leave it - a couple of times a week. I forced myself to hold his hands. I forced myself to sing to him when we were alone. I made myself act out the kindness I knew should come naturally. I hated it. Every single minute.

When people asked how he was, I was so hard, steely in my response. "He's gone," I'd answer firmly. "You had to tell yourself that to stay sane," friends try to comfort me, but I know. I was just a selfish bitch who was too weak to be good.

I waited for his death with a strange kind of desperation. I thought his dying would finally be the end of my anguish. Me, me, me, me, me. I was all I thought about. I couldn't remember a thing about the father and the man that my dad had been. All I could think about was how much I dreaded sitting with him every week. The smell of illness and creeping death clung to me after each visit, and I'd return to my babies to suck in, vampire-like, their smell of lovely newness. I began to imagine his gaping mouth as a plug hole down which any lightness drained.

We spent his last night by his side, with the gurgle of the oxygen tank, the grinding of an industrial air freshener (the secrets of death that we wish we could unknow) and the reedy voice of Neil Young whispering, 'We could dream this night away'. We watched his by-then tiny chest move almost imperceptibly with each borrowed breath, and I thought he'd died a thousand times that night. I was so ready, it was unseemly.

In the end, I didn't see him go. I'd stepped outside to work. Work! You stupid bitch, he's going, he's going, he's going and you're working. What are you doing? I ran back to the room, but then he was gone, and I couldn't tell him "I'm sorry" any more. I'd missed my chance. I hugged the already rigid body and understood instantly it was pointless. It wasn't him. He was not there. And then I saw it in my mind: a tsunami of guilt on the horizon. I even had time to think, "Of course; here you are, old friend" before the first wave crashed over me.

Where is the comfort when you don't believe in God? I walked to the window of that awful room that I now didn't want to leave. Outside, two magpies arrived, maybe to remind me that this day was a joyful one. For three years, my dad had lived between life and nowhere.

Sophie White
Sophie White

The next five mornings I woke early in my childhood home and cried quickly and quietly in the kitchen. On the first morning, my gasps were cut off by a spectacle: 12 magpies invading the garden. The next three days were punctuated by visiting magpies. I didn't admit outright that I thought they were from him, but I smiled each time they appeared. On the morning of his funeral, I woke with a question: What will he send today? I went to the window to check the garden, and there was a skinny ragged fox standing in the morning sun.

The guilt isn't over by any measure, but at last I remember him the way he was. Gorgeous. He was just gorgeous. The memories are a deluge after three years of nothing. It's a bit unbearable, but beautiful too. I can see him diving into the sea. I can see him listening to music. I see him singing and eating and laughing, and on my wedding day and holding my first baby. I can see his face just at that exact second that it breaks into a smile. And it's hard, but it's a gift, too.

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