I present the familiar green and white box to him. By the look on his face, I know he remembers. His favorite boyhood taffy. I wonder if he remembers the sound of feet on the boardwalk, the breeze off the shore, the salt in the air, his nose pressed up against the huge window watching enormous sheets of taffy being stretched and molded into the small treats he’s savored for over 80 years. Does he remember the noses of his children and grandchildren pressed up against the same glass? This fascination with taffy production passed on to each generation.
Opening the box to reveal the splash of bright colors, I ask, “Would you like a piece?” His eyes widen, his hand stretches forward, “Yes!” he replies. He takes his time looking over the selection then slowly reaches in and picks a brown one – chocolate. I grab a yellow – my favorite for as long as I can remember – banana. Mine is unwrapped and in my mouth within seconds. His is being turned over and over in his hand. My father’s fingers are no match for the slippery wax paper twists standing between this sweet treat and his mouth.
My instinct is to reach over and grab the taffy, adeptly unwrap and place it back in his palm before he even notices. He is in the toddler phase. Not yet ready to demonstrate a skill, but desperately wanting to try, fiercely wanting to be independent. I picture my children as young toddlers defiantly exclaiming, “I do it!” I take a breath. I take two, three breaths and I watch my father wrestle with this task. Unlike my young sons, he is no longer learning. My father’s brain will never learn to tell his hands how to unwrap that wax paper again. Parkinson’s and Dementia have made the distance between his brain and his body infinite. How long do I wait? How do I let him try, but prevent him from getting too frustrated. I breathe and walk this tight rope.
His veins are wriggly blue worms as his fingers pull and twist and turn that taffy over and over in his hands. I know those veins, they are his mother’s. I used to sit in her lap and trace those “worms” as a child. I loved the way they slid beneath my fingers, my grandmother saying, “well, that’s a silly thing to do”. Watching his hands, sadness and fear fill my chest. Sadness for him, fear for me. In the blink of an eye they will be my veins. The first brave ones already coming out of hiding revealing themselves on my middle-aged hands.
On the outside, I am my mother, but deep inside where life and death and illness reside, I have my father’s genes. Some good, some bad, some ugly. His almost perfect blood pressure, high “good” cholesterol, autism, breast cancer and someday, maybe, my fear whispers, dementia. I remind myself, today is not about me and I chase fear away leaving my sadness to go on alone, crushing my chest. Quietly, I offer to unwrap his taffy and he nods his permission. He quickly shoves the whole piece in his mouth and I smile at this childlike father of mine. He sucks loudly on the candy and smiles back. A rarity these days.
I tell him the box of taffy will be on his bedside table if he wants more. He may not remember the taffy is there for him to enjoy, he may not remember who gave him this gift, he may not remember I was even there, but at that moment he quietly says, “Thanks, Jane” and my heart bursts. Remembering my name is the only gift he has left to give and I will remember.