My dad is losing his mind. I know it’s a common story, an elderly parent on the cusp of alzheimer’s, but it’s still tough to watch when it’s zoomed-in close-up of someone you love. My dad, who at one time was one of the sharpest people I have ever known, is now slowly descending into dark mist of nothingness. He’s 82 years old. He was born right before the Great Depression, was sent to a co-op boarding school from the age of 4 until he was 15 (because his parents could not afford for him to live with them) where, for short time, he befriended Lee Marvin. He ran track and field in high school, joined the army in 1944 to fight in WW II, and graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in Art. Then he traveled across the USA working as a coal miner and in electrical plants, met my mom in San Francisco, studied to be an actor, and played bit parts of a few TV shows in the dawn of television . When Hollywood stopped calling, he got a job as a draftsman at an aerospace firm , and designed military lasers for 20 years. He also became a Civil War enthusiast and collector, road motocross and desert enduros prospected for gold, coached kids soccer, learned to grow his own organic produce, and many other things. To say that my dad lived a “full life” is an understatement. Even though he was dealt a pretty crappy hand at the beginning, he just about kicked the shit out of life anyway. My brother and I marveled at the stories of his youth when we were kids, only wishing we could experience a small percentage of the same amazing adventures.
My dad’s storied past simply makes it that much harder now that he can’t recall much of it. He has not reached the stage where he does not recognize any of his family, but he has lost the ability to do some every day things like turn off the stove, clean his room, and solve seemingly simple problems like finding a new roll of paper towels or changing a light bulb. After 9-11, my dad turned to listening to talk-radio on his head-phones almost non-stop. He sort of reclused himself into his room, and shut himself off from everyone else. In that time, he pretty much lost his ability to relate to the real world and many of the things that used to be part of him are now gone. I’m not saying that talk-radio killed his brain (or am I?), but it was an unfortunate coincidence that at the time he needed most to be living in a vibrant world outdoors, he cocooned himself-up inside listening to fearful stories of imminent terrorist strikes.
Growing up, one of the things that I loved to do with my dad was play games. He started us very early playing Monopoly, Pick-Up-Stix, Bushwacker, Axis And Allies, poker and blackjack. However, the most important game that my dad and I shared was Chess. My dad taught me to play Chess at a very early age, and we continued until I got through college and finally able to beat him. It was tough though, as he knew more about chess than anyone I ever knew. For the past 10 years or so, we have not played a game of chess against one another. I’ve been “Cat’s And The Cradling” it with my own family and we have not found much time to play much of anything. Last week, after trying to talk to my dad about a soccer game he and my brother had just watched, I realized he could no longer formulate sentences about his recent experiences. I recalled that when his own mom started her descent into madness in the early 80’s, we would religiously play Parcheesi and Scrabble with her every weekend in an attempt to keep her mind working. I decided to try to do this with Chess. I wanted to try to help re-start his nervous system and get some synapses firing by getting him to sit and concentrate on the game, a game with finite rules but almost limitless possibilities, a game that we used to play at least once a week together.
I did not know the current condition of dad’s chess skills, but knowing that he had probably forgotten a bit, I enlisted my 10-year-old daughter to play against him. My daughter is just learning to play chess (on her own volition mind you, but I’m still pleased), and I thought it might be good for her to learn something from my dad. Before his descent began, she used to play all sorts of games with him, so it was nice to see them back together playing something again. The first thing we realized, as soon as my dad started playing, was that he had not forgotten “a bit” about chess, he had forgotten EVERYTHING about chess. Every piece, every move, every rule. He was like a blank slate. Honestly, at first I wanted to cry. To see someone who used to regularly stomp the crap out of me at this game now not even recognize the pieces was almost too much to bear. My he and my daughter started a game, and from the outset, every move was painful. I had to remind him of all the rules, and show him where the pieces went. I tried to be patient, but it was very difficult. My daughter was learning too, but she was picking it up very quickly. As an almost mirrored-reflection of my dad, my daughter seemed to gain skill as quickly as my dad had lost it. Within a few minutes I found myself in unenviable position: trying to help my dad beat my little girl at a game she was just trying to learn herself.
By the end of the match I was exhausted. It only lasted about 20 minutes, and my daughter won easily. I was very proud of her growing abilities, but the look of look of absolute bewilderment on my dad’s face took much of the pleasure away. I could sense a sadness in his eyes, but I’m not sure he even knew why he was sad in the first place.
“You know dad”, I told him, “we used to play this game all the time.”
“Yes I know”, he replied, ” you and Rachel played a lot.”
“No dad, you and I played”
“When I was a kid, dad.”
Yesterday we returned to visit my parents after a full week. When I got to their house I noticed something very interesting. My dad had set-up the chess board on the living room coffee table, waiting for a new game. When I went into his room, he had two books about chess moves open, and he was studying them.
“I haven’t gotten all the way through these yet” he said I entered his room “but I think I’m getting it!”
He kept reading through Sunday dinner, and through dessert, and up until my daughter asked him to play again in the late afternoon. When they started the game, I noticed that he was a bit more adept at knowing which pieces were which, and how they could move. He was still a bit confused about the movements of the bishops and rooks, and he puzzled at why pawns move one way, and attack another, but for the first 10 minutes or so, he kept-up fairly well in the game, in fact, it was a near stale-mate. Was this actually working? Was a simple game of chess able to help loosen enough dust off my dad’s brain so he could be completive again?
I got up to go outside to check on my others girls, but when I returned, disaster had struck. My daughter had taken my dad’s queen, and several other powerful pieces, and my dad had little to show for it. Part of me wanted to pull her a side and tell he to take it easy on him, but then, how could I really do that? She did not yet need a lesson in “pulling punches”, and at the same time, my dad needed a challenge. I watched the game continue, and I saw my dad’s edge slowly slip away. At one point he tried to move his knight like it was a queen, and when I told him he couldn’t do that he said “oh …I haven’t got to that part of the book yet.” It was all down-hill from there. I found myself getting frustrated, and tired of telling him the same things over and over again. By the end, I was simply angry. After I “loudly” told my dad the rules of pawn movement for the 100th time, I took over my dad’s side, played-out the game, and beat my daughter handily. I was neither a model father nor a model son…just an impatient bastard. My dad slowly put the game away, and my daughter ran to meet her mother who had just returned from getting a pedicure.
“Steve”, my wife said, as she entered the living room “you can’t yell at your dad like that, it’s not going to help anything.”
I gave her a blank stare. I knew she was right, but at that moment I didn’t want to talk about it.
Right before we left for the week, I went into my dad’s room to say goodbye. There he was, again, with his headphones on, listening to something that was most likely erasing his memories of his family and replacing them with fear. When he saw me, he took off his headphones.
“I’m um, ah …I’m going to keep reading these” he said, motioning towards the chess books.
“Sure dad. Play again next week?”
“Any time. I’m still learning though. I’ll never be as good as you Steve.”
“not never” I thought to myself, “just not right now…”
And I will be back next week, and the next, and the next. If chess is too hard, then we will try something else like scrabble, poker, Parcheesi, P.I.G. or Tic-Tac-Toe. I saw him come-back a bit this week, and even though it only lasted for a short time, it was still progress. I firmly believe that if anything is going to help my dad, it will be to play something that helps him focus his mind, against real people sitting across from him. And If it doesn’t work? Then I can at least be satisfied that I spent some quality time with him, doing things we used to enjoy together, while he could still remember my name.