By Sheena Koops
It started with squirrels at the end of his bed, and sometimes he would make Mom get up and see what those tall people in the corner were doing. He saw horses in a field and riders wearing tall hats with stovepipe points; he saw all this through the walls of his own home and through the houses along the streets. Not long before he passed he said, “Why is the little girl crying?” referring to the empty chair at the round kitchen table of their new home in Fort Qu’Appelle.
Dad had neuropathy, a condition which caused him to have nerve damage in his feet, very bad balance, and he was losing the use of his legs. Amidst our wondering if his eyesight was going or wondering if he was losing touch with reality, Dad came away from his regular visit to the neurologist with a (post-autopsy) diagnosis of Louis Body Dementia (fun fact, they can’t diagnose Louis Body Dementia without an autopsy). We began reading up on the disease, and Dad could have been the poster boy for an awareness campaign. He was beginning to be more and more paranoid, feeling some depression and anxiety. He was sometimes aware of his visions, and he was often able to reason himself back to reality with some interventions of kindness or firmness or a good laugh.
The diagnosis was a beginning. It was also an ending. My dad was known amongst his hunting buddies as the guy who could walk the longest and the hardest, through the most water and toughest terrain. He was also a farmer; his farmer tan on his arms and head, outlining his shirt and his cap. His hands were stained with oil, using purple gas to scrub it off, blood blisters here and there, working without gloves year-round. He was an athlete, hitting home runs in ball, scissor jumping into a sandpit, catching without a glove, riding his bike all over the city when he went to university. The diagnosis was an ending for my brother, who was Dad’s hired hand, hunting partner, and only living son. The diagnosis was an ending for my mom, who was Dad’s sweetheart, confidante, and life partner. The diagnosis was an ending for my sister, who was Dad’s student, his pride-and-joy, his baby. The diagnosis was an ending for many people, especially as Dad was confined to the wheelchair and to the nursing home in the last couple months. It was really hard on those who loved him best.
Yet, in some ways, this was a beginning for me. One of my first memories of Dad is him taking me to the “tattling tool” (paddling pool) in Regina and pushing me on a swing, trying to catch a kiss every time I swung. But after we moved to the farm, I often felt lonely for my dad. He worked long hours in a world that I felt that I didn’t belong: tractors, combines, dirt. Then, as I became more and more teenager, Dad and I fought a lot. We had the same anger, usually based in fear, that came out under the pressure of not-that-important-topics. Mom, my siblings, and now my husband and kids laugh at how much I am like my dad in the way I think and feel. This Dad-wiring took on a whole new life as Dad declined. It was like I understood his fear, his pain, his psychology, his imagination.
I’ll never forget one visit to the nursing home when I came into the common room, and Dad was in the middle of the room, trying to get his seat belt off. He looked up, saw me, and said, “Am I ever glad to see you”. It’s like he had me back on that swing, and if I just kept showing up, he’d have another kiss-like-word or laugh or story for me. I can’t say that I enjoyed those visits to the nursing home. In fact, I often watched the clock for when the next transition time would come, like tea time, and then bedtime, but I did know how to be there. I could use all the practice I’d had fighting with him to be firm on our path forward.
“No, Mom can’t visit every day. She needs to rest”.
“No, you can’t stay at home, it’s not safe anymore”.
But more often than not, the little barks back and forth turned into teasing, or a little story or memory.
I finally did become his farming buddy as Dad and I cared for his little garden out the back of the nursing home in Raymore. I became a hunting buddy, too. As we sat outside in the evenings, watching the canola fields turning yellow across the stream-ditch, Dad saw moose everywhere. He kept track, every evening, of how many we saw. Sometimes it was six or seven, but it wasn’t unimaginable for him to spot fourteen or twenty. Every time he spotted one, I had to stop what I was doing, and look until I saw it.
In the last months of Dad’s life, I knew how to read him, speak to him, tease him, listen to him. It gave me much comfort to know I was able to bring him some comfort. This all led up to another beginning-ending-beginning of sorts. As we gathered as a family in the Regina General Hospital, we laughed, cried, sang, teased, slept, talked at his side for five days. Although his body was failing, it was also returning to its athletic, relaxed, warm, gentle, strong-self. It was like he was becoming all things to all of us. Mom crawled right up in bed with him every day, and even though he couldn’t move or speak, we knew he was with us. He lingered right until everyone who had messaged or called, who were days away, got up to see him. This hospital room – like his life – became a space of healing, and everyone who came in for a visit got what they needed.
About the Author
Sheena Koops teaches at Bert Fox Community High School, and has taught in urban, First Nations and rural Saskatchewan within private, band, and public schools. She is a published author (Voice of the Valley, 2006). Sheena and her husband Michael agree that their favourite accomplishments are three girls: Victoria, Moira, and Arwen. The Koops’ live in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Treaty Four Territory where Sheena blogs her Treaty Walks.