Life in the Bird House Factory

By Patty Crawford

My father is experiencing many health changes and I have prepared myself for diminished interactions on my visits.  I was not anticipating my experience on Saturday.

I found him in the dining room trying to wheel his wheelchair to the other side of the room.

“Hi Dad,” I said.

“Patty!  I’m glad you’re here.  I’ve been looking for your mother.”  I found that especially poignant because this was her birthday.

“Of course Dad, today is her birthday, always the hottest day of the summer.”

“I was supposed to pick up Carl and Virginia and no one seems to know who they are.”

He went on to tell about the struggle with the muddy roads at the park and then the heavy snowfall. He was trying to get to Litchfield to eat at the VFW.  All the details were part of his collected memory but none of them made sense in this time or place.

“Would you like me to check on Carl and Virginia?”

“No, they are old enough to take care of themselves.”

They were old enough and in fact they had passed away a number of years ago.  Dad went on to tell me about his latest job and the fact that he needed to buy some paint to put the address on the side of the building.  When we moved to the sitting room he looked with his blind eyes out the window and pointed out the new construction, especially liking the two story house being built across the street.  He was immersed in his world of purpose and activity and his five years of near complete blindness had given way to a world of houses and projects.  I saw happiness.  I saw a moment of grace. We laughed together and I just held on for the wild ride, not knowing where the next hallucination would take us.

“It’s almost time for lunch Dad.”  He looked at his watch.

“That’s what you think!” 

That was a tone very familiar to me.  I heard it every time I came up with some great idea that involved staying out late. I used to think that such experiences were about living in the past.  As I visited with Dad I saw how his mind had pulled everything into the present or near past.  His brother Norman had helped him on the muddy park road last night and mother had just stepped out of the room.  Maybe everyone was nearer than I thought.  Warmth filled me.  A week ago he was asleep and not responding.

The staff called us for lunch and I rolled Dad’s wheelchair down the hallway, past the med carts and into the dining room.

As we entered the room he said, “Wow! What kind of place is this?  It must be a bird house factory.” He turned his head from side to side.

“We’re in the dining room at the Manor.”

“No, just look!”

I was the one who could not see. I thought back to all the bird houses my father had built.  Only he would know what a bird house factory would look like and be thrilled about being in one.  I could smell the wood, he taught me that. “Smell the oak,” he would say. He would point out animal images in the grain of a cedar plank. I remembered how impressed he was when I found maple floors under the carpet of my old home. “Upstairs and down? I would have expected it to be pine upstairs.”

Sometimes when I leave the Manor I cry until I reach the highway.  They are taking excellent care of my father; I cry about memories and loss.  This Saturday it was easier, I was leaving my father happily eating lunch in a bird house factory.

I often give people the advice to “enter the dementia world.”  In my daily work at Open Circle it comes naturally.  I want people to feel validated and accepted. Now I felt the joy that comes with the advice. When I look through my father’s blind eyes, I see another world.