Daddy, dementia and me: ‘Did you say I am a drummer boy on your tree, Áine?’
I don’t know why it took me so long to realise that ‘distraction’ is often the best strategy
George Ryan with his daughter Áine. “I may have lost my short-term memory, Áine, but I haven’t lost my powers of reasoning.” It is a regular mantra he uses.
I know now it was Daddy up to divilment, but when I was small I once thought that poor Santa Claus had lost some of his beard on the fireguard in our sittingroom. On another Christmas Eve, as I lay in a state of rapt anticipation, I heard that giveaway tinkle of bells as Rudolph and the reindeers landed on the roof of our bungalow in Tullamore, shortly before dawn.
Daddy’s inner-child and sense of festive fun certainly ensured that Christmas lived up to all its magical mystery. So for this wide-eyed six or seven year old, a clump of cotton wool and a classroom bell (George was teaching at the time) easily confirmed the existence of armies of elves whose toy production on dark winter nights up in the Arctic would never have been acceptable to workers unions even in these days of zero contracts.
Fifty-odd years later and I still love the magic of Christmas. Its rituals. Its festive fare. Its mulled wine, mince pies. Its suspension of reality and all its dreariness. Its celebration of family and friends. Snuggling up on the couch for an entire day. Adding new baubles to the tree.
Alongside his granddaughters – Aisling, Bébhinn and Saoirse, all teensy snow-women with their names stitched across their tummies – George has hung out on an upper branch of our tree for a number of years now, in the guise of a miniature drummer boy with a red-and-white uniform.
Last Christmas, on an afternoon reprieve from his nursing home, I showed Daddy his namesake hanging from my tree.
“Very inter...rr..esting, Áine,” he said, taking a long pull out of his cigarette. “That’s the most beau..tt..iful tree I’ve ever seen.”
He is sitting back in an armchair in the middle of a cloud of smoke.
“Where exactly are we now?”
“We are in my house in Westport, Daddy.”
“Did I come down on the train or drive?”
“No, Daddy, you don’t live in Dublin anymore. You have lived in a nursing home here in Westport since April 2015.”
“You are joking me, Áine. [There is a pause.] That’s bullshit.”
“No, I am not joking, Daddy.”
“Well, I am going back home this evening. So, will you drive me or will I take the train?”
He is speaking in his rebellious “don’t dare mess with George Ryan” voice.
“I have my Irish Times bridge column to write.”
George had retired from The Irish Times three years earlier, in November 2014. When he first moved to his nursing home here in Westport, I used to try to explain to him the sequence of events that led to his move to the wild west. The heart failure that landed him in St James’s Hospital for the Christmas of 2014; his subsequent expulsion from a Dublin nursing home for rebellious behaviour and the repeated citing of Bunreacht na hÉireann regarding his rights; and, ultimately, the move across the country to the nursing home in which he has now lived for 3½ years.
“I may have lost my short-term memory, Áine, but I haven’t lost my powers of reasoning.” It is a regular mantra he uses.
In the beginning, I found this response comforting. In fact, I would repeat it to him when he was confused over something.
But reasoning with him doesn’t always work. In fact, it has led to some deeply upsetting moments, for him and for me. So, I don’t know why it took me so long to realise that “distraction” is often the best strategy.
I don’t know why I didn’t seek the expert advice of his nurses who confirmed that sometimes teasing out the realities only leads to distress and it is best to use distraction.
Perhaps I baulked at its inherent duplicity. Perhaps it meant I was losing another little bit of my daddy.
But, then, incredibly and out of the blue, lucidity can return in a flash. Maybe just for a moment.
“Did you say I am a drummer boy on your tree, Áine?”
“Have I ever told you that I got a whole set of drummer boy soldiers from Santy once?”
SERIES: Daddy, dementia and me
Part 1: I couldn’t face seeing him so confused
Part 2: How can I tell daddy his son is dead?
Part 3: The stand-off about a car
Part 4: Daddy talks to me about Mammy
Part 5: He left the wedding for a cigarette
Part 6: If granny had drowned that day
Part 7: I am a drummer boy on your tree?