Dad Has Dementia

Week 18: First, We Make a Hole in the Dirt

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Today, Dad and I are planting flowers in containers. I've purchased more ceramic pots and annuals this year than ever before in my life because gardening has always been one of Dad's passions "“ and because container gardening is one of the few activities he can still do.

The slate-top patio table in the screen porch is covered with an array of flowers in crackly plastic flats. Before him, Dad has an oblong galvanized planter. He looks at me uncertainly. "I don't understand. I'm supposed to move the flowers out of the containers they're in and put them in this other thing?"

That he doesn't know what to do is unthinkable. If ever there was a born farmer, Dad is it. As a child, I lived in awe of his ability to grow everything from acres of soybeans to delicate peonies. He seemed to know exactly what combination of elements each plant required to thrive, from the type of light to the amount of water. The homestead portion of our family farm resembled something of a botanical garden, with an acre or more of manicured lawn shot through with floods of flowerbeds. Families taking a Sunday drive through the valley sometimes stopped and picnicked in our park-like yard.

I remember being 6 or 7 years old and standing on the east side of the farmhouse at a low stone wall that my grandmother had built by hand. In the thin, early spring sun, Dad crouched at the edge of the freshly spaded flowerbed. On the ground sat a flat of pansies he'd purchased on impulse at the feed store. He plunged his fingers deep into the loose soil. "The first thing we do is make a hole," he said. "Then we press the plant down into it and gently firm the soil around it. Now you try it."

It was the first of many gardening lessons. From Dad, I learned how to grow strawberries and how to stake saplings properly. How to prune a tree. How to know when rhubarb is ready to harvest.

But today, sitting in the screen porch, he looks at the flats of petunias with bafflement. When he turns his puzzled gaze toward me, I see something in his eyes that tells me he knows he once knew what to do with the flowers, but now he can't quite put his finger on it.

I always thought dementia was a disease of dribs and drabs. That it slowly stole memories synapse by synapse, until one's very sense of self was gone. This certainly hasn't been the case with Dad. In eight short months, he's gone from experiencing sporadic bouts of memory loss to forgetting something as simple "“ as integral to Dad's being "“ as planting flowers.

I swallow the lump in my throat. "It's okay, Dad," I tell him, pulling up a chair beside him and pushing my fingers into the soft, moist soil. "First, we make a hole in the dirt...."