Visiting my dad this past weekend was surreal. I knew what to expect. He's in the part of the nursing home where the people are most invalid. It stinks. It reeks of poop and pee, and other non-descript yuck no matter how much air freshener they try to spray. There is moaning and indistinct sounds of pain and suffering.
What can be hard to quite fathom is that those things are coming from your dad.
Matt said it would be the worst part of my trip home. I'm not sure if visiting dad was the worst, it was the hardest in ways I didn't expect. I wasn't prepared for the bewildered but somehow also expressionless look on his face that either stroke or dementia had created. Being there in person was in many ways exactly like being on the phone. We talked about the kids. I said lots of cheery, positive things.
Then his mind took a turn. He told us he couldn't wait to show us Aunt Ruth's farm. We both said yes we'd like that.
Aunt Ruth's farm, the mecca of my childhood tales, was the best place in the world. They had an orchard and cows and chickens. There was a fruit cellar. Bread was baked. Everyone worked hard. They rose with the sun and went to bed with the sun. On Sunday Night they listened to old timey gospel on the radio. There were small metal heaters that were put into the bedrooms when it was cold. It was a place of Rockwellian perfection, with a wrought iron fence out in front of it. Peace and plenty were in great supply there, and Dad wants to take us there.
He doesn't recall that I've been there. The white clapboard house that needed painted, the three trees that don't quite constitute an orchard I don't think, the scraggly front yard, all of these things were a great surprise to me as a child. The fence was leaning and in disrepair.
There is a great secret about Aunt Ruth's farm, however. A reason it is so magical to him that I didn't divine until I was an adult, having listened to tales from Aunt Ruth's farm for my entire life.
My father was a child born to a teenager and a young man shipping out to war. Unwanted doesn't cover it. My grandmother actually left the hospital WITHOUT HIM when he was born. My great aunt had to go back and get the baby. The way the stories go, my great aunt actually took care of him as a small baby.
My grandparents would dump him off starting when he was a toddler at Aunt Ruth's farm, for months at a time. When he entered school he'd spend whole summers there. It was a place where no one drank nor smoked. He was cared for, fed well and most importantly - he was loved. He was safe and they loved having him there. My spinster great-great aunt Ruth, who was never allowed to marry, and her brothers lived together. One worked in town and the rest of them kept their little farm going. It was the best place he ever was growing up. In many ways it's a tragedy they didn't just leave him there. He probably would have had a much better life all around.
It's no surprise then, as his mind makes it slow and painful exit, that it wanders back to his happiest place. A place where there is no pain, and he's free and loved.
When I left him for the last time, after reminding him repeatedly that no, I had already seen Aunt Suzie I wasn't going to miss her that evening all was well, I took his hand and promised I would be back soon. I took his hand, that was motionless due to stroke and squeezed it, and told him I loved him. He answered, "I love you more."
Now that I'm a parent, I know what he means. He looked me right in the eye when he said it, he was himself at that moment. He meant what Cersei said to Tommen, "I would burn cities to the ground for you." We never really know what I means to love someone so fiercely until we have our own children. My dad hasn't been big with the I Love You's ever.
If that's the last one I ever get, it will also stand as the best one I ever get.