Dr. Doug Hedlund is now a resident of the Veteran’s Home in Minneapolis. We invested heavily in paper and red tape over two years to get him there. He was proud to end his life, he said, in a home for Veterans. It will save mom from financial dependency, he said, if he moved there when he lost his sense of place and time. Today it is 1991, he said upon arrival, and we are at “the hospital” in Baltimore. No, but it is winter, however fair a question that is beside a floor to ceiling window after the snowiest February ever in Minnesota. On the way over he grumbled that I was “dumping him” with no warning. I attempted the truth and did not change his thinking. Nothing changes his mind but himself and his disease these days. So I asked instead, “can you be a little nicer right now?” No.”
Old midwestern men raised by dark Swedish homesteaders married to effervescent Norwegian ladies that arrived in North Dakota via the St. Lawrence Seaway do not get sad. They get all-the-angry-Fargo-can-muster-at-0-degrees-and-nothing-to-see-for-miles. This is a bone chilling cold. That was him today.
My mom asked “what’s wrong” with genuine curiosity when I was tearful afterward. She is back-from-the-grave-many-times tough. You’ve asked “how is she?” She is fine. She will be until she’s oddly aggressive about her lost hat or she is laughing so hard she gets to cry. Sad and vulnerable aren’t options.
I was utterly impressed by his highly orchestrated welcome. I immediately liked his nurses and neighbors. Everyone we met today was either an immigrant or Veteran, a fascinatingly American combination. I like his view and his room. He was deeply sad and confused when we left (again, this looks angry). But I think he will eventually be ok.
He is available for visitors at any time. You could be one of his first visitors since his diagnosis five years ago. Alzheimer’s, we have found, scares the best of people away. Yet is does not scare children like other disease that we can see. He is not hooked up to machines. He looks and sounds the same, albeit thin. He’s a little grumpy, but he is also funnier than I ever remember him in his health. He does not mind at all if you speak of legos, dragons and your troubles at school within the same sentence. He still remembers faces. He still recognizes love and warmth. He might not know your name, but if you knew him, you understand executive functioning, lightness and small talk were not his gifts at the best of times.
After 53 years of providing therapy, Dr. Hedlund is at the office most of the time these days. His pitch is entirely legitimate: what brings you in, how you are sleeping, are getting exercise? Worst case scenario upon your visit, you are likely to get some free therapy and perhaps even a diagnosis. At first this was troublesome to the staff at Brookdale Home’s Memory Care Center where he lived the last nine months. They were distraught when he diagnosed residents with “schizoaffective disorder” or “psychotic symptoms” or simply “depressed.” The lead nurse saw only benefit: he was often tailed by residents who knew they could bend his ear. Women, in particular, followed him. My mom’s explanation? “He still has hair and his eyes are twinkly.”
Please visit. It’s a nice place to hang out and walk on campus, look at the river, play pool or do a puzzle with a view of the falls. You can shake hands of everyone there and say “thank you for your service.” You need not fear saying the wrong thing–he will not remember.
My dad led his life in service to others. He is the most insightful listener I have ever witnessed. He stared down dark holes of depression and anxiety his entire life without ever losing sight of his kids, wife and patients.
His last chapter appears to be a maddening disease, family and friends that love him, ice cream available all day, and a nice view. He is out of home, money, sense and time. So be it.
Aside: you were terrible company today, Dad. Terrible. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for raising me not to take it personally and not to fear your pain. Thank you for being a very real, honest, fiercely brave and brilliant dad.
The doctor is in. Please go see him.
If you don’t ask, you may never know if he remembers you or not. This does not matter to him. Very likely, he will be curious, he will be oddly mindful for a man losing his mind, he will attempt some jokes and he will share his free ice cream.
Floor 2, Building 21. Minneapolis Veteran’s Home. Appointments daily.