A glimpse back

My father has just a few personal possessions at the nursing home and last night I nearly took one of them.

Dad’s room is sparsely decorated on purpose. Dementia sufferers like to collect things, carry them off and stash them — it’s one of many compulsive, repetitive behaviors — and Mom and I didn’t want lose anything of sentimental value. So when we moved Dad in, we packed a scant supply of personal items.

Last night it was clear that one of these things had gone missing. At dinner Dad kept standing up, claiming that he needed his “armand.”

Lately he’s been using nonsensical words and I don’t always know what he’s talking about. But in this case, he cupped his hands together — like he was holding a small animal — and I knew what he wanted.

“Oh, your elephant?” I asked. “Yes,” he remarked, as if that’s what he’d said. “My elephant.”

Dad has this funky elephant figurine that he once carried around my parents’ house. The elephant later journeyed with Dad from assisted living facilities to hospitals and back to this place again, and it remains a favored treasure. Before dinner, I noticed it was missing. In its place on the dresser was a moccasin.

At the time, I picked up a nearby photo — a Christmas snapshot of my mom seated beside the tree, in our old house with our old Hungarian sheepdog. I’m there too, elementary school aged, with a cheesy grin, brandishing a wooden nutcracker.

As I set the plastic frame back down, I noticed a second picture tucked in back. A close-up shot of my father that I don’t remember seeing before.

In it, he takes up the entire frame. There’s no identifying setting, but judging from his clothes and expression, he’s at work. His sideburns, mustache and the fat striped tie tucked into a checkered vest are standard 1970s garb.

Dad’s looking away from camera as if he doesn’t know it’s there. He stands with his arms crossed over his chest, one hand poised against the stump of his pipe, which leaks a thin tendril of smoke. He wears an expression I remember well — when he knew exactly what to say but was mulling over how to tailor his statement.

The photo is mesmerizing, not only because it captures a younger, healthy dad, but because I see myself back then. I would have been about 7 or 8 — at an age when you know your father is smarter than anyone else. That he can fix broken toys, cook dinner and catch a snake in the yard….complete your homework and name constellations in the sky. It was a time still unspoiled by my truculent pre-teen years. When dads are flawless.

Which is why I retrieved the photo. I slid it out of the frame and pocketed it. Just a week before a nurse mentioned that Dad had shredded a family photo, then carried the pieces in his pocket. I figured I’d save this one from dementia-addled destruction.

But then I realized that the photo was a form of identification. If another resident walked off with the Christmas picture, there was no guarantee that a nurse would recognize the woman and the kid and the mop-topped dog by the tree. But they’d see the photo of Dad — no longer lawyerly and wise — but Dad nonetheless.

So I slid the photo back into the frame and returned it to the dresser. Hopefully it’ll be there the next time. Along with the elephant.