I’m going to start posting some of the art I’ve been doing about my dad over the last couple years. My goal is eventually do a whole show and a coffee table book to go with it about our journey through dementia. First, I should talk about the kind of dementia he has. He was diagnosed in 2008 with frontotemporal dementia, which usually hits people at a much younger age and progresses more quickly than Alzheimer’s. There are several kinds of frontotemporal dementia (also called frontal lobe dementia), but he seems to have the behavioral variant. You can read more about it here:http://www.alz.org/dementia/fronto-temporal-dementia-ftd-symptoms.asp
His behavior started changing in subtle ways, and for awhile we didn’t realize that anything was going on other than him being stressed about work. And being a very high functioning adult, he was able to compensate and cover for the things that were happening. Dad had seemed very distracted for quite some time, but I chalked it up to overwork. He was selling cars and the economy had dipped, slowing down car sales. He ended up being hospitalized for an ulcer and decided, not long after, that it was time to retire. But the distraction that S and I had noticed did not improve. When my parents came down to visit us in Florida, we went to our favorite buffet. We all went through the salad bar line, paid, and then went to find seating – except that Dad never found his way to our table. After several minutes, he was nowhere to be seen. I found him on the opposite end of the restaurant eating happily, oblivious to the fact that he was eating alone. On phone calls, he was talking less, and my mom said that he’d stopped paying for things with cash, and we were guessing it was because he couldn’t make change. He also seemed to be drinking more wine at dinner (remember that he had been an alcohol and drug abuse counselor, so that was really odd). Still, S and I didn’t say anything because we weren’t sure how to bring it up. My parents ended up being the ones to say something to us first. My understanding is that they spoke to my dad’s primary care physician, who did a mini mental health evaluation, which my dad basically passed. But when things seemed to worsen, Dad returned to his physician and was referred to the Memory Disorders Clinic at the University of Virginia for more testing. I flew home to be with them to get the results, and was not surprised by what they told us, though lack of surprise didn’t make the news any easier to bear.
Shock does not even begin to describe what I was feeling. My grandparents, on both sides, lived to at least 90 years old. My grandfathers both died without showing signs of senility, and my grandmothers didn’t show signs until into their 90’s. Of all the things that I thought would afflict my parents or me, dementia was not one of them. And dementia at the age of 65 (knowing he’d been showing signs for a couple years)? Not possible.
His dementia has progressed in phases, and just when you adjust to the new reality, he phases down again. It’s a pretty brutal disease to watch and a horrible way to lose a loved one (not there’s really a good way, but you know what I mean). Like many artists, I’ve often used art as a sort of therapy, and when we moved to Raleigh and I was able to get some distance and breathe, that’s when the need to process what had been happening kicked in. This is the first piece I did.
The elephant represents my dad and dementia. I have a tattoo on my foot of an elephant that I got after he was diagnosed, because of the old “an elephant never forgets” saying. I also like the Dr. Seuss line, ” I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful 100%.” So an elephant, for me, symbolizes memory and loyalty. I chose this elephant because it’s young and looks like it’s singing, and Dad has regressed to a quite child-like state and is always singing and playing music. The music in the background is the song, “Emily,” which he used to play for me. In addition, I’ve added full color on all of the quarter notes, to symbolize how the music he plays (and his memory) is often fragmented – not “whole.” Look for both the elephant and sheet music to be featured throughout much of the series I’m working on. I’m thinking of calling it “Fractured Memories: Songs for My Father.”