Updated: Nov 19, 2021

My own father's father died when I was around 11, which would have put my father at not yet 40.

When we would go visit my grandparents, I spent most of my time with my grandmother Grace, who constantly delighted me. She was a great cook; she always had good snacks or candy; and her garden in the backyard of her city lot was impressive. She had a great sense of humor and was always teasing my dad or playing pranks. She would let me look through her cabinet of old photo albums, answer all my questions, and tell me stories about the people in them. And she had interesting things all over her house, like her cool change purses, costume jewelry, and the monthly fabric wall calendar where she would mark with beads all the birthdays of my cousins and me. She was beautiful and giving, and I adored her, as did my father.

My grandfather Victor - not so much. He had moved his family to my hometown when he took a job as a plumber at the big manufacturing plant that would later employ the entire family. But what he was really known for was his other work: an apostolic preacher and bluegrass musician. From a child's perspective, it was clear that he wasn't interested in what you had to say. He expected you to listen to him. He preached, told Bible stories, sang songs while playing his guitar. But it was all the same ones over and over again, things I had heard hundreds of times. I found him insufferable and a good example of the hell that he was trying to convince me to fear. Yet my parents would always require me to be his audience for what may have been mere minutes but felt like lifetimes. I was convinced they didn't know how bad it was, because *they* weren't ever his audience. In fact, I have not a single memory of my dad having a conversation with his father.

No one had told me then about dementia or Parkinson's or why his hands shook and his brain played the same episodes over and over again.

When my parents told me Victor had died, I was surprised, as I didn't know he was sick. But not having to suffer through those stories again did not leave me sad and wanting more. I wasn't so heartless that I would celebrate his passing, but I was definitely okay with it. And I was okay to attend the funeral too, because my dad's family -- full of aunts and uncles and cousins -- was always a good time. Even funerals that started out somber and emotional would be loud, boisterous, and full of stories and laughter by the end.

Yet I only have one memory of Victor's funeral, frozen forever in my mind: my dad cried. Though I would see him cry many times later, as he gave away daughters at weddings, lost brothers, sat through his wife's surgery, and witnessed births of grandchildren, his father's funeral was the first time I had ever seen him so emotional.

And I was shocked. I watched every movement of his face, his bowed head, his hand covering his eyes several times, wiping his own face, trying to keep his head up, his deep breathing, his shoulders moving and straightening.

I had missed something. My father loved his father, and I had missed it completely. I couldn't reconcile his deep emotional reaction with the relationship I had witnessed between father and son.

Over the next 40 years, I would piece together a far more complicated relationship, based on the accounts from my father himself and my older cousins who witnessed more and had the maturity to give it some perspective. Not surprisingly, Victor was far more complex and interesting than his dementia allowed him to express in the short time I knew him.

As my father's own dementia progresses, Victor seems to be with him regularly. That the far-back memories are easier to access than the closer ones is a hallmark of dementia. But what's surprising is how much kinder and forgiving my father is.

For example, one criticism my father always had was the way Victor squandered money. As the story goes, his wife Grace demanded his pay and gave him an allowance, an act that took the family out of constant poverty and into middle class.

The dementia version of that story goes something like this: Victor always believed in the best of people. Any person who crossed his path who was down and out and needed money would get some from Victor, until he had nothing left to support his family. Enter Grace, who took over and gave him an allowance.

I can't help but wonder what inspires this much more sympathetic view. Does my father's own need for understanding of his current condition make him more understanding of others, even those who are no longer here? Or are those past memories so powerful right now that they no longer carry the tarnish of anger or ego or whatever narrative was required to deal with the situation?

I do know that now, more than 40 years after Victor's death, I know my grandfather better than I ever have, which has been an unexpected reward of my father's dementia.

Photo (left to right): Grace, Victor, my dad's late brother Paul

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