What My Father Taught Me about Love After My Grandfather's Dementia Diagnosis
By Thao Nguyen
I’ve always thought that my dad was the coolest person on earth. Growing up, he told my sisters a bunch of crazy stories from all the concerts he went to in high school (Queen, Van Halen, Pink Floyd, to name a few) and about all of the predicaments he got into being one of the only Vietnamese citizens in his small Wyoming town back in the late '80s. On top of that, he knows how to do everything. He’s successful at his job as an engineer, he designs and builds almost all of the furniture in our house, plays multiple instruments, and is super artistic. Anytime I struggle with anything, my dad has the answer. If something stops working in the house, my dad knows how to fix it. And it’s worth mentioning that he has the best dad jokes, hands down.
However, until recently, one thing that I thought my dad struggled with was showing affection. I’ve mentioned before that we don’t say “I love you,” in my family, and that is the most true of my dad. No hugs, terms of endearment, or grand gestures for him. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that he loved my mom, my sisters, and me. He just didn’t show it like the dads in TV shows or books. My dad worked crazy hard to make sure we all lived comfortably, went out of his way to make sure we grew up confident, empowered women, and showed us that love doesn’t have to be shown with rainbows and butterflies. So I never ever doubted his love for us. Yes, when I was a kid, parts of me wished that he could show his love with hugs and piggyback rides, but I grew to appreciate and accept his love the way he knew how to express it.
But recently, my view of my dad completely changed. About two years ago, my paternal grandfather was diagnosed with dementia. His condition quickly progressed, and against the wishes of everyone in the family, he eventually had to be placed in a senior home. My grandfather lives in Seattle, along with the rest of my relatives, so my dad spent countless hours on the phone, here in the Bay Area, making sure that my grandfather would be okay. He would fly up to Seattle once or twice a month to make sure things were going smoothly and my grandfather was doing okay. My dad’s hair went from black to salt and pepper overnight. This behavior wasn’t new though. My dad has always been someone who likes to know every single detail before making any major decision, especially those concerning family. What surprised me was how my dad spoke and treated my grandfather.
We went to visit my grandfather at his nursing home over Christmas break. I hadn’t seen my grandfather since I had gone to the Pacific Northwest in October, but in those two months, he had changed drastically. My grandfather, who had always been skinny but strong, now looked frail and empty. He lay in his bed wearing a jacket because he said he had to be ready to run away when the “bad guys” came to get him. The only person he recognized anymore was my dad. My mom, sisters, and I stood by as my dad conversed with my grandfather and patiently explained to him that he would be perfectly safe at the nursing home, but that he should keep the jacket on if it made him more at ease. I don’t know how he managed it, but there wasn’t anything patronizing about my dad’s “mmhmms” and nods of agreement to my grandfather’s farfetched story. It was the most patient and earnest I had ever seen him.
Then he did something that made me and my sisters cry. My dad took my grandfather’s socks off and proceeded to give him a foot and leg rub. My grandfather’s legs were constantly sore because he was mostly sedentary, so this was a treat for him. But seeing this from my dad, a man who I had known my whole life to be more sarcastic than affection, was shocking. Seeing my grandfather, small and helpless in a bed away from the comfort of the home he had forgotten, along with the gentle way my dad held my grandfather’s foot in his hand and the warm way he spoke -- it was heartbreaking and inspirational all at once.
I had woken up that morning thinking that it would be another insignificant day, but it ended up changing my mindset in many ways. My grandfather’s condition taught me to cherish my family and my memory. Those were both things I often took for granted. Seeing the thought and decision making that my relatives and dad put into placing my grandfather in the right place reminded me that the love of a family is unconditional. Walking in and not being recognized by my grandfather was difficult, but that taught me to appreciate everything and everyone I have now, because I might not have the chance or capabilities to do that in the future. Most importantly though, I learned to see my dad in a new light. I had gotten used to viewing my dad as a sarcastic, funny, and wise man. But after seeing all of the love and compassion he had that day, I finally understood that he is more complex and devoted than I ever could have imagined.
On that visit, the focus and attention my dad gave to my grandfather taught me more about love than I ever could have learned on my own. Sometimes love is shown with corny jokes and stern lectures. Sometimes love is shown by quiet, thoughtful gifts like a new laptop bag when your old one has started to fall apart. Sometimes love is about staying strong even when someone you love slowly starts to forget who you are.