Stephanie Nguyen '09 | February 7, 2019
“Can you please come back home to clean out your room this summer?” my mother asked me over the phone. Approaching her late 60s, she contemplates moving into a senior living community to ease the burden of maintaining a house and my father’s progressing dementia. Two weeks after I finished my doctoral qualifying exam in the summer of 2018, I drove the 600 miles from Indiana to Maryland to begin the process of downsizing our family home.
Cleaning out my childhood room is one part of an ongoing conversation of how to deal with my father’s dementia. His diagnosis was a major life change for our family, creating a sense of urgency to downsize our possessions and reprioritize our family’s future to take care of him. Yet my mother and I have different responses to his diagnosis. She’s focused her energy on taking care of him — reminding him of his appointments, keeping track of his medications, or managing the house. During our long-distance phone calls, she rarely expresses the emotional toll that my father’s dementia has on her, but I can sense it. As she recounts his doctor’s visits, medications, and his daily exercise regimen, I can always recognize the timbre of each feeling. Her panic when she recalls how my dad has misplaced his car keys again. Her frustration when he retells the same story. Her sadness when she tells me that there is no medical treatment to cure his dementia.
I’ve dealt with my father’s dementia differently than my mother. Because of the long distance, I don’t experience the daily frustration and anxiety he or my mom feels. Instead, I worry about the mortality of our family memories. Growing up, my father was the unofficial family historian, recounting stories of his childhood and my parents’ evacuation from Vietnam. He never told his stories chronologically; they were haphazardly weaved into our daily routine. As he was picking me up from daycare, he would tell me about walking to school through the palm tree groves, a book tucked under his arm and banana-leaf shoes strapped to his feet. While helping me with my math homework, he recounted time spent with his father — my grandfather — reciting multiplication tables until bedtime.
He was the most reflective at the kitchen table. As he pages through the daily newspaper, a particular news story or advertisement will trigger his memory. The beginning of the Iraq War reminds him of his first migration from North to South Vietnam during the First Indochina War when his extended family chose sides: communists or nationalists. An ad for a cruise liner prompts him to reveal his fear of enclosed boats developed when he and his two siblings crammed into an American Navy vessel departing to an unknown refugee camp in one of the Pacific Rim countries a few days before the 1975 Fall of Saigon. Sometimes, it’s the after-dinner silence that prompts him to share some of the most intimate stories, like meeting my mother at a Catholic-singles event in Saigon or my parents’ evacuation just days apart before the Fall.
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