Early last year, my father became focused on the number 77. It wasn’t that unusual for him to get focused on something because that’s the way his mind would work as dementia took its hold. He’d get an idea in his head – whether on his own or by osmosis being around other conversations – and the thought would recur whenever possible. So last year was the year of 77.
As background, my father had a nice birthday party for his 75th. It was in a private event room at a restaurant with a lot of my folks’ friends from over the years. We had a good time but there was a nagging something wrong. My immediate family knew that he was having some issues but we hadn’t figured out exactly what yet. There were some comments during the party which seemed off and out of place as people aged. I also remember thinking that it would be one of the last “normal” times we’d have.
After he turned 76, the number 77 started cropping up. The next birthday was 7 and 7 – and 7 was a lucky number. It clearly started as humor on his part. It became one of those running jokes in his head which he’d laugh at in a good humored way. But 77 was also a sign of things to come in a tumultuous year. My mother turned 75 that year and we’d hoped to do something similar to my father’s party. He had turned more and more inward, however, At the time it seemed like he was being selfish. He hadn’t been diagnosed yet so we didn’t really know what was going on. No amount of prodding would get him to arrange a party for her milestone so my wife (and I, but mostly her – because she’s a really good person) planned one at our house. My in-laws came in for it and helped celebrate since every woman in my life has a Leo birthday. Even as we toasted the occasion, my dad reminded us that he was turning 77 in a few months.
By the time he actually turned 77 though, it was becoming apparent that this would not be a lucky year. We did a birthday party for him at the same place we had his 75th. It was just immediate family and my sense that we were really entering a last phase of reality was intense. From the time we met in the parking lot and he spent time showing the valet some old pictures until we left, the event had a bit of desperation to it. Like we were trying to make one more good memory before the bad things started going down. I had even suggested going to a significantly nicer restaurant to make the point. As it was, going to the same place was fitting.
At the end of the year was when the meltdown at the neurologist I described in Dementia and a New Normal occurred. My mother moved in with my family and the first half of the year got progressively harder. Even so, the number 77 prevailed. My younger son was playing rec league baseball in the spring and randomly got those digits on the back of his jersey. As a result, we got to hear about 77 for a few more months. My father would come to the games and watch my son play while making jokes about 77 which got gradually more hollow. Each week, he’d call me a couple times a day to make sure he knew when the game was so he could come watch.
Still, those memories of that baseball season are the high point of 77. The baseball jersey his grandson wore was so much more meaningful than whether it was a lucky year for him. Finally, 78 has come around. This weekend we visited in the assisted living home he’s in with a cake and root beer. We sang happy birthday. We took care of him and made him feel loved. He mentioned over and over how lucky he is to have his family even as he looked old to me for truly the first time. I’m sure the next year will be just as significant and will bring its own challenges. 77 will remain with me for quite some time though.