As the plane touched down in Nashville, the passengers around me talked about their brunch plans or Airbnb reservations. The tones of text messages that had been stuck in the ether of airplane mode dinged as we all got service. I texted my mom, “Landed!” and she sent back the red dancing lady emoji.
The dichotomous energy between me and the other passengers seemed almost palpable: Most were here for a bachelorette party or a long weekend escape. But I was back in my hometown for a reckoning — to see my dad for the first time since he was diagnosed with dementia.
The dementia hadn’t changed him dramatically. As with most early-caught cases, it moved in slowly, causing him to forget small things in the day-to-day, like grocery lists or your name if he’d just met you. His long-term memory, however, seemed solid. He could recall the names of all his high school classmates or remember a football game from 1973 in vivid detail, down to the referee calls and offense plays and defense strategies. In best-case scenarios, dementia can stay at this level: mild memory dilapidation that may just require you to stop driving a few years earlier than you want. In the worst cases, dementia can be more advanced or a precursor to something more severe like Alzheimer’s.
As I got off the plane, the sense of sanctuary I always felt when returning to my hometown seemed to have dissipated. In its place was an unknown future, one where I didn’t know what scenario Dad would fall into.
When I bought my plane ticket, I was a little bitter: $300 was a lot of money to pay for a ticket, mostly because I didn’t want to pay any money at all. It was a reminder of the reason I was flying back to Nashville. But what I wanted was to help Dad gather his memories in a pile like raked leaves. It made me sad that I didn’t already know all the ones that were most important to him and, furthermore, that he didn’t really know mine.
I was playing catch-up with someone I’d known all my life. I knew the highlights of his life and the rest I’d picked up from passing comments or the detailed photo albums my mom kept during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The news that his memory was fading sent me into an urgent flight-search frenzy. Even though his dementia wasn’t too advanced, there was a hanging question: Is it too late to get to know my dad?
Mom and Dad were both in high spirits as they pulled up to the airport in their green Honda Accord. They insisted on taking me to brunch. Going out to eat with my parents was a foreign concept until I was 16 — that was the year all eight of my older siblings were off to college, jobs, marriages, starting families, and I was the only kid left in the house. My parents finally realized that they could go to a restaurant with one of their children without making others feel left out or spending their life savings on 11 Chili’s entrees.
We arrived at the breakfast place. It was newish and trendy and thankfully not a Chili’s — the type of place where Dad always very obviously pointed out the tattooed guys wearing tight pants or beanies in the Southern summer. Mom and I chatted for a while. It felt natural.
Looking around the restaurant and out the window at Nashville’s Eighth Avenue, the familiarity of home seeped into my bones like blood on black cloth — hard to see, but the smell and feel of it was all I could think about. The main purpose of my visit to Nashville was to take a small road trip with Dad and write about some of his old haunts around Tennessee.
He’s a former football player, so I had reason to believe that decades of repeatedly crashing helmet against helmet was linked to his dementia. With this possibility in mind, I wanted to hear his reactions and feelings on revisiting the football fields that formed his childhood and early adulthood. I was (and am) angry at football, but I knew Dad wasn’t. I placed the blame on football for taking away the thing that had provided the most stable point of connection between Dad and me: the power of memory.
As the youngest of his and my mom’s nine children, I watched his behavior for years as it filled our house, as my siblings adopted it, and as it slowly became impressed upon me, that, in order to make people listen, I have to have stories to tell. But the trouble came when speaking up meant more than just recounting a story. Asking me to articulate how I was feeling as a human being felt like building the Panama Canal with a spoon. All I could do was avoid, dance around subjects, tell more stories.
Even when I first got the news about Dad’s diagnosis, I didn’t speak for an entire day, choosing, instead, to sit on my fire escape, go to bed at 8 pm, and not tell anyone about it. Saying “I’m sad” or “I’m mad” felt like an admission of defeat.
Along with storytelling, Dad gave me this propensity to keep things bottled up, hidden away, only shared when someone was shaking my shoulders. It’s a trait that’s caused breakups and fights, and splintered friendships. It’s a trait that Dad and I have fallen back on all our lives, with other people and with each other.
But faced with his slipping memory, I called into question the role of my own memory. I’d lived 25 years relatively at the surface of our father-daughter relationship. To try to figure out who could’ve done what better would only take time that I’m not sure we have. It wasn’t contentious. Our surface was light, bonded in our sense of humor and efforts not to be too vocal with what we needed to say.
Once, when I was in seventh grade, out of pads and embarrassed about being on my period (a real trifecta), my mom, who was out of town, called Dad to ask him to go to the store to get some more pads. Twenty minutes later, Dad knocked on my door and stuck his head in the room: “I’m back from the store.” Then he nodded his head like he’d delivered the captain’s orders and left the room. I waited until his footsteps vanished down the hall and then jumped to the bathroom where the Kroger sack sat with the plastic package of pads. When I pulled out one of the pads, it felt and looked different than my usual ones. I unrolled it and it was roughly the size of a Monopoly board: Dad had purchased the pads that women wear postpartum, right after they deliver a baby. It felt like I was wearing a diaper, but I didn’t say a word. Granted, I was 12, but that’s how we operated. Don’t encroach on anything too personal.
But as we sat eating brunch, I looked at Dad and knew I didn’t have an option: Even if I was late in starting the process, I needed to take this time to get to know him. I was determined, even if it meant shaking his shoulders or telling him the story about the gargantuan pads I had to wear for a week in seventh grade. (I did tell him — he laughed). I realized that even after that current trip ended, coming back to Nashville now meant seeking out the unfamiliar in the most familiar of people. It felt daunting but simultaneously comforting.
Dad and I took our trip and drove all over the state of Tennessee. I learned about more of his stories and asked him direct questions about the emotions behind his memories. I wrote so many things down and took so many voice memos in my phone. It was the most time we’d ever spent together, just us two. It didn’t always feel natural to ask so many questions about his life and experience, but it felt necessary.
In moments of downtime, he asked me a few questions, and an arsenal of my own memories and stories came spewing out like shaken Coca-Cola: learning how to drive; losing dogs; Friday night football games; having existential crises about what life was supposed to be while I restocked candles in the backroom of the Anthropologie where I worked after college; moving back in with Mom and Dad only to move out a few months later to go to New York.
It was give and take, listen and ask, react and respond. It was two people speaking up, realizing they had something to share.
It wasn’t a magical transformation into knowing and understanding my dad completely. There’s still work to be done in a relationship that will continue to change. But now I can look at the situation and say, without any bottling up, that I’m sad. More than that, though, I’m hopeful.
When we sat at breakfast on that first day back in Nashville, Dad asked me if I really liked living in New York, and I told him I did. I’ve had the same answer every time he’s asked. I don’t think he’s forgotten it; I think he’s hoping it’ll change, and it may one day. But for now, I know I have time to get to know Dad more — a $300 ticket and fighting against bachelorette party crowds seems a small price to pay.
Holly Patton, originally from Nashville, is a writer and producer living in New York.