With his arms outstretched toward the open window, Dad chuckles like a little boy. I released another one! I clap my hands in support just as a thin ray of golden light shines into my eyes. As I walk over to the shimmering window and peer out through the bronzed dreamy sunlight, I see the front yard of my childhood home. I’m transported back to when Dad and I played together when I was a young child. He let our lawn grow long to prepare for a maze that he’d create with the push mower. Our neighbors thought he was strange. Grinning, I agree, strange in the best way. Instead of our name, he labelled our trash cans with words like inedible, unpalatable, or something similar. Dad often encouraged word games that way, just like when we read the dictionary together. No doubt about it. Dad was decidedly different.
I lower the window shade, focusing back on reality. There are no longer word games; Dad struggles with dementia from Alzheimer’s. Self-hypnosis helps him cope, along with memory games like the one we just played. We call it Catch and Release. We created the game together a few months ago spontaneously, and the emotional events leading up to it will forever be forged in my memory.
It happened here in this living room, a few days after Mom got sick. Dad and I stopped to pick up a few things for her. After we arrived, Dad asked me to grasp a favorite memory out of thin air from my childhood. I didn’t think twice and pinched the air above my head, looked at my hand and retorted in an announcer’s voice. Here in my hand is the memory of our jazz band. You passed out pots, pans, and wooden spoons, turned on your favorite jazz music and held two chopsticks like a conductor. All four of us kids played along. It was glorious! Dad smirked. He remembered.
I then asked Dad to catch a memory from his childhood and share it. Dad looked frustrated, and I felt bad putting him on the spot with his failing memory. Then he sat down on the sofa and looked at his open hand as he pondered my directive and leaned forward. Dad’s eyes lit up as he reminisced in his usual sing-song voice. Riding double on my older brother Frankie’s bike is a favorite. We’d coast on Frankie’s bike through the busy city streets with our dog Prince, a German Shepard running alongside us.
Then Dad’s body language shifted as he further relayed the memory. Hunching forward while twisting the ring on his finger, his soft hazel eyes glazed over as if in a trance. I strained to hear him as he whispered. I begged Frankie to take me riding that day, but he left me behind. Dad’s voice grew hoarse as he continued reviving the memory, still so fresh. Frankie held onto the back of a truck while perched on his bike. We did this all the time. We called it hitching-a-ride. The truck was pulling Frankie and his bicycle through the city streets. Dad’s head bowed lower. His voice stammered as he closed his eyes. Frankie lost his grip, slipped and was jolted underneath the truck and killed. Dad’s brow furrowed, then he sat back. Prince stayed beside Frankie’s lifeless body, shielding him and at first, he wouldn’t let anyone near him or the bike. Prince loved and protected Frankie. Later that night, that story and a picture of Prince standing guard next to Frankie’s mangled bicycle were on the front page of the local newspaper.
Dad’s face flushed red as he sat up taller. Pointing, he asked me to find an envelope in a file marked Frankie among his papers. I did and handed the envelope to him. He removed a doubled layer of paper from a faded envelope and gingerly held it out to me. His hand shook as his shimmering eyes grew distressed. I unwrapped the parchment covering. It was reminiscent of pressed butterfly wings, thin and brittle. I could tell it had been folded and unfolded many times. There inside was a copy of the 1935 front-page article of Frankie and Prince. I held the frail paper and felt a rush of emotion. Shaken, I thought to myself how Dad held onto it all those years. The news article was a tangible symbol of a cherished love lost and became the inspiration to use a butterfly to symbolize each memory in our new game.
I coached Dad to release his memory as if letting go of a delicate butterfly. I elaborated. It’s a blue butterfly so that it can hide against the blue sky until needed. Dad liked the metaphor behind our new game and shook his head yes. Then, under his breath, he mused. Some dark blue, some light like a sunny day. We’re chasing blue butterflies. And with outstretched arms, he opened his fingers wide and released his first blue butterfly out of the window. I hugged him close and felt his skeletal frame fold under me, trembling, yet sturdy, in my arms. I perceived a renewed closeness to my father as a layer of his long-hidden persona was revealed. Dad later confided to me that releasing that memory was pivotal to letting go of the guilt he carried for decades, as he believed if he had been with Frankie, the tragedy would never have happened.
We have played our game many times since that first day. It continues to help stimulate thoughts from deep in Dad’s subconscious mind. And although his cloak of dementia has become a heavier and heavier burden to carry and I worry our game days will soon end, each memory shared now is a gift beyond measure.
I have sold Dad’s house and today we have just finished packing up some of his remaining belongings. Dad comes close and holds my hand. He looks worried. He pleads. Where are we going? I take his hand and lead him toward the car. You live near me now, Daddy-O. He laughs. I love when you call me that. Dad sits in the front seat and waves at the house as I back out of the driveway. Was that where we all lived? Before I can answer, Dad turns on the radio, flipping through the channels. Thelonious Monk. Dad praises. He’s one of my favorites. He taps along as I drive.
I park and unload the two small boxes and begin walking Dad to his room. On our way, we pass a ladder balanced up through the ceiling. Dad says, in his traditional matter-of-fact way. Hmmm. A ladder. I need one of those. He shuffles past without stopping. I catch up to him. What do you need the ladder for? Pointing his thumb toward the ceiling, he quips. A stairway to heaven so I can be with your mother. Dad continues his stride, not missing a beat.
When we get to his room, Dad sits at his piano and plays one of his favorite jazz tunes. The notes fill the air and lull me in and out of a sleepy haze. Drifting, I surrender to the hypnotic melody, a sharp, a flat. He’s keeping three-four-time. I have Daddy-O, the jazz-man, back.
One afternoon, a few weeks later, Dad and I went walking together along the canal path in a local park. The early September sky was cloudless, and as we sat down on a bench taking in the warm sunshine, Dad stated in that familiar, matter-of-fact manner. This could be my final blue butterfly. I did not question why.
Dad fidgeted next to me as he described his service during WWII. He spoke as if narrating a story. I made plans to join the Navy like my older brother, your Uncle Bill. Worried about being drafted because I was a pacifist, I wrote a long letter to the draft board explaining this and my desire to help in the war effort. When accepted as a hospital apprentice/corpsman, I quit high school to join. It was a few days after my eighteenth birthday. Nine months after joining, the war ended. I stayed on for two extra years. I knew I was doing something more worthwhile than coming home.
Dad’s shoulders slumped, and he closed his eyes. His voice faltered. Some died relaying their last wishes to me, and I could only whisper back, hoping my words could bring solace.
As I listened to my father’s history, I was blown away by both his candor and clarity. A history born for me alone. I was overwhelmed. I tried hard to hold back my tears. Dad grasped my hands and his eyes met mine. I felt a cleansing away of our shared protective façade, regenerating what was now raw and open. I felt closer to my father than ever before.
Dad clasped his hands over mine as we released his deep-blue butterfly together. Our arms outstretched in unison; we opened our hands into the iridescent cobalt sky overhead. We watched spellbound as the blue butterfly disappeared into the sapphire jeweled vastness above us. When we stood up to leave, I was sailing on air weightless, dazzled by what I witnessed. Dad stroked my cheek and took my hand as we drifted back to the car.
It turns out that was not the last time we played our game. It happened once more, during one of my daily visits to the Veterans Home where Dad last lived.
We went outside to take in the unseasonably warm November sunshine. As we sat together, Dad reached over and took my hand. Do you have a favorite blue butterfly? At first, I was surprised by the lucidity of his question as Dad’s dementia had progressed much further and most days he was uncommunicative.
I excitedly answered. A favorite memory for me was the day our tent almost floated away underneath us when we were camping. Dad looked blank. I hoped he’d remember; sometimes he just needed more time. Much like a computer file downloading, his memory processor got stalled. I continued. It was pouring rain and when we pressed our hands on the bottom of the canvas floor, water began to seep in. It pooled and rose under the floor, and we all scrambled outside. Then all six of us started dancing in the wet grass outside the tent as you and mom egged us on clapping and laughing. I know we later set the tent up on higher ground, but I don’t remember doing it. Dad snickered and smiled. He nodded his head. I was gratified; he remembered. I then prepared to let the bright blue butterfly go. Dad gently touched my wrist and implored. No, don’t let it go. I’m going to keep it here with me. I cradled Dad’s clenched hand with mine and sat motionless for what seemed like a long time.
We did not say a word as we sat further in the warm sun. As Dad held the memory in his closed hand, I studied his face. His eyes were closed, and although he looked like a skeleton of his former self, emaciated, frail and depleted, he looked content. At one point, he was so still; I thought he may have died. I admit, in my heart, I wished he had.
Less than a week after that day, my father peacefully passed away. It makes sense I remember him most on sunny, cloudless days. Days when the sky is endless, full to overflowing with blue.