This page is dedicated to my father, who lived with dementia for ten years, and my mother, who cared for him. At the time of his death in 2014, they’d been married almost 55 years.
My parents met at Volkswagen Motors in London, England in 1956. My mother was a British secretary and my father was a German auto mechanic, recently emigrated from Munich. Not yet fluent in English, he starting asking the young, pretty secretary to help him with a few things he couldn’t manage on his own. Then, to say thank you, he took her to the movies. The only problem was that my mother was engaged to someone else. After my parents’ movie night became a regular thing, my mother’s fiance asked (as my dad used to tell it), Who’s the German guy? And my parents had to confess that they’d fallen in love.
My parents immigrated to the United States (My father in 1957. My mother in 1958.), settling in Hollywood, California. Since they weren’t yet married, they lived in separate rooming houses until my father was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1959. Like the true Americans they aspired to become, they drove to Vegas with some friends to get hitched so my mother could join my dad for two years at Fort Lewis, Washington. Before they did, my dad wrote my mom’s parents and asked for her hand. I found that letter in my parents’ safe after my mother died. My grandmother had kept it. Then, so had my mom.
Like most people, my parents had ups and downs. But when looking at the whole of their life, they were lucky. They lived the American dream, moving to California at its magic moment, starting a business that succeeded, adopting two children they adored. I once asked my father whether his dreams had come true. Ten times over, he said. He grew up poor during the midst of World War II and ended up owning an automotive repair shop with his name on it on Ventura Blvd in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. He lived a life he never could’ve even imagined.
My father first started showing signs of dementia shortly after he retired. In the early stages, it was difficult to figure out what was going on but eventually he was diagnosed with vascular dementia. My mother took care of him at home for the first five years but made the decision to put him in assisted living when he became too challenging to manage, something she never forgave herself for. He lived another five years in assisted living. My mother visited him daily, only missing her visits when she herself was in the hospital.
My father forgot me after about a year into his time in assisted living. I was standing next to him with my five-year-old daughter nearby, when one of the aides looked at him and said, “Is this your family?” He glanced at us and shook his head. “No,” he said. Over time, as my father lost more and more of his memory, many things faded, but there was one thing that was constant: My mother. At the end, he rarely engaged with the world around him but whenever he saw my mother, he smiled. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he knew who she was but he knew she was different. She was special. I think he knew that he’d loved her and that she still loved him.