Updated: Nov 19, 2021

My dad is the nurturer, the care-giver, the heart of the family. Love is not an emotion to him; it's an action. And he acts it out with every opportunity. It fills him up. He's the one you call in an emergency, or the one who cooks whatever you want when you're sick, the one you ask to fix something that you've broken. When I was at home as a new mom, my dad even went to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions and those products that most men of his generation would be embarrassed to buy. Not mine: he'd even ask specific questions to make sure he got the right kind.

This beautiful and dominant part of who he is has remained with his dementia. And I'm writing this to remind myself of all the amazing ways he's taken care of all of us, because what used to be beautiful is absolutely crazy-making, by no fault of his own.

Some things are still lovely, like how he keeps making coffee and filling up my cup while I'm working from home (except that time he brought me a travel mug too in addition to the two cups he had already brought me and refilled, and I wondered when I would sleep again).

But the keys. The KEYS!

Balance my dad's best quality with one of my worst, and you'll see the challenge.

I lose things all the time: keys, reading glasses, wallet, key card for the office, cell phone, sun glasses, umbrellas, jackets, and just about every other item you could imagine. When my son left home, he left me with a cool technology where my wallet and my keys can call my phone, and my phone can call my keys or wallet. He knew after spending his childhood looking for things I had lost that without him, I might have trouble. And he wasn't wrong: I use it once every day, if not ten times or more. The only time this system doesn't work is when I lock the wallet, keys, and phone in the car while it's running (oh, I've done it. If losing things were an Olympic sport, I'd have more gold than Michael Phelps).

Because my father is no longer capable of doing many things he used to be able to do for us -- maintaining vehicles, repairing household items, buying specific feminine products -- he does the things that he still can do for us, like making coffee, getting the mail a few times a day, carrying things in from the car.

And he makes sure all the doors are locked. All the doors. All day long. Screen doors, garage doors, outside doors. He walks around with keys in his pocket, nervously jingling them, and uses them whenever he sees an opportunity or envisions a threat to those he loves.

I would prefer to move through a world that didn't require keys. At my previous house, I didn't even carry the house key, I just used the garage door opener, either the one in my car or the one with the code. While I was home, the front and back doors were always unlocked, as my two big dogs would tell me if someone came inside.

But since we've moved into a new house together, the situation is radically different. If I stay out late and use the garage door opener to enter the house, the door from the garage to the house will be locked. If I take the dogs for a walk, when I come back, the back door will be locked. If I go outside to work, whatever door I used to leave the house will be locked when I return.

Even worse, the new house has the kind of locks that use a key on the inside to lock the dead bolt. So yes, this means that not only do I get locked out, but I also get locked in. Losing keys is one thing, but nothing gets me more riled up than the feeling of being trapped.

Figuring out our key situation is quickly rising to the top of the priority list for new-house projects. Upgrading to smart keys would leave him with one more thing he's unable to do for us, one less way to fill him with happiness. So while he can still manage locks, we'll need to figure out a way to keep keys in strategic places, or give copies to friends and family. We need to protect him too, from being in a situation where we are locked in or out and can't help him.

While I consider keys pesky annoyances, suddenly they live up to their name - something of crucial importance.

Photo and painting courtesy of my talented friend Daisy Allen Cunningham

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