french fries

I got a call from my sister. She was worried, frustrated, crying. Dad wouldn’t let her in the house; she was locked out. Dusk was rapidly falling, she was in Los Angeles with nowhere to go, nowhere to spend the night.

For the last few years when I’ve told this story, I blamed dad’s behavior on something called “Sundowner’s”…common to people with certain forms of dementia. As daylight decreases, but well before darkness falls, every cell in their body shouts, “Darkness is coming, and with darkness comes danger! Lock the doors, turn off the lights, go to bed.” Dad definitely demonstrated “Sundowners” by this time. Recently I spent some time in Los Angeles with my sister, and in the midst of our sisterly storytelling, which often includes stories about all the shenanigans we went through with dad, I brought up this story, linking his behavior to Sundowner’s.

My sister said, “NO…that’s not why he locked me out. Don’t you remember?” Immediately, she began to laugh – a particular kind of laugh I recognized as precursor to a doozy of a “dad story”. Well, I didn’t remember, and it turns out this is one of those instances where the truth is much stranger than fiction.

At the time this happened, I was back up north living in my own home and my sister was down visiting dad in LA. We had come to a crossroads with his in-home care. We’d been able to gradually increase the number of hours that caregivers were there, even though he continued to resist having caregivers at all. Somehow between the three of us kids with all our different ways of communicating with him, we’d been able to expand the daytime contact hours.

Now it was clear to all of us, with increasing pressure from his caregivers; it was time to have someone stay with him during the night. We all agreed…all, save dad. One of his reasons for refusal was that it would be improper for a woman to stay in his home overnight. Ellen got the inspiration to see if we could find a male caregiver for the night shift. I thought this was a great idea, and also had one serious hesitation; dad was still, at age 93, dead set on being the “head of the house” in any situation. With dementia, that meant that he might very possibly challenge any man, known or unknown, found in his home in the middle of the night, with physical aggression. After all, he grew up in an era, and in a neighborhood where fistfights settled most disagreements, or, he might grab one of his hidden weapons – a golf iron or a baseball bat.

We decided to begin interviewing some male caregivers and see if we could find the right person. That’s why Ellen was in L.A…to find our man. An applicant came over one afternoon and Ellen was able to interview him out on the front porch first, while dad was finishing up his lunch – there they sat in a couple of scruffy, white plastic, outdoor chairs. The timing of these sorts of things was tricky; dad’s schedule had its own brand of randomness, so it seemed like the gods were with us. After their brief introduction Ellen came inside to ask dad if he’d like to meet this person who “might be doing some work for you”. And here’s where the story turned classically dad-crazy.

First, dad went out on the porch and without any conversation waved the guy off, as in “get the hell off my property”. Next, dad turned to Ellen and said in a genuinely apologetic tone with a completely straight face, “I’m really sorry, but I just can’t let you stay here.” As my sister re-told this story to me, she said it was like he so wished he could let her stay, but because of whatever she’d done, “Lord knows what that was”, he absolutely could not let her back inside his house. Ellen, at first just mildly baffled, said, “What?” At that point dad had lost his patience; before dementia he had very little patience, and after dementia, pretty much none. “You heard me, leave. You can’t come in. Go on,” and waved her off the same way he’d waved off the guy. With that, dad walked through the open front door, shut it and locked it. He not only locked the doorknob, but also locked it with the chain lock…a security feature on all the homes in this 60-year-old neighborhood. Instead of a deadbolt or a little peephole, there was a shiny brass chain that enabled you to open the door maybe an inch, so you could safely see who was at the door without exposing yourself to potential danger. Well, that’s what dad used on my sister, his youngest daughter, on this sunny afternoon. He usually didn’t do the chain lockup until he went to bed…but this was a dangerous situation and required serious action.

She could not comprehend AT ALL what had just happened. She tried the door and yes it definitely was double-locked. “Go on now!” was all dad said, in a much darker tone. At this point he was beginning to feel under siege by whoever Ellen had now become in his hard-to-make-sense-of-things mind. Somehow, amazingly, she was able to figure out what misinterpretation dad had just made. In that moment, he knew she was somehow a relative…and maybe he still knew she was his daughter, but most importantly what he “knew” was that Ellen had just had a very improper interaction with a strange man on his front porch. The interaction was, in his mind, so grievous that he could not allow such a “shamed woman” to enter his home. So he locked her out. This all occurred in the middle of a bright, sunny afternoon…there was no “Sundowner’s Syndrome” going on, like I’d remembered it. This had become “The Case of the Improper Woman” and Ellen was stranded in the midst of her childhood neighborhood.

Accepting defeat, she walked off dad’s porch and as the reality of her situation began to weigh on her…the tears began to flow. Her father had just banished her and, she was stranded in North Hollywood…a moderately safe place by day…but anywhere in Los Angeles could become a little sketchy at night. She was low on cash, so staying at a motel was not possible, and besides, any motel that she could afford in that area would be really sketchy…not just a little.

Finally she decided to seek temporary shelter with a dear elderly neighbor across the street. She knew my parents and since dad had become widowed, she kind of kept an eye on dad. We always visited with her when we came to visit him and she would give us updates on what she witnessed from her vantage point across the street. His daily walks were pretty much like clockwork, so she could tell if something was out of order, if she didn’t see him in the morning.

When Bea opened her door and saw Ellen’s distraught look, she reached out to her with a precious motherly hug and Ellen really began to cry. She just didn’t know what to do and her heart was broken. That’s when she called me. I was no help. Knowing dad I knew he wasn’t going to let her in. In other circumstances I would have said that he’d forget about it in a while and then she could just start over, but he was feeling attacked and most likely was pretty agitated. I knew from experience with him in that state, that it took more than a little while for him to get over it. If she knocked on his door again, who knows what he’d do and besides, now it was getting dark so “Sundowner’s” would be part of the problem.

I agreed that sadly, her best option was to spend the night with Bea. I was sure glad it wasn’t me down there, locked out. Before Ellen packed it in at Bea’s, she decided to go out to get something she’d forgotten to bring with her. She was driving along Ventura Blvd, a long and meandering street on the south side of the San Fernando Valley, past a myriad of shops. Every kind of retail store and food establishment offering items you know about, plenty that you’ve never heard of, and many that you don’t want to know exist – it’s all there. She was driving along not thinking about anything in particular when she saw a fast-food place.

“FRENCH FRIES!” This thought screamed out to her. “GET DAD SOME FRENCH FRIES. You can BRIBE him with FRENCH FRIES!”

In this moment, she remembered his caregivers telling her that sometimes when dad would fire them, and tell them to GO HOME, when he wouldn’t forget about the whole interaction after a few minutes so they could just carry on with looking after him, they’d leave and go get him some fresh, hot French Fries. They told Ellen that it worked every time. She pulled into the next fast-food place she passed and ordered some piping hot French Fries.

Back at dad’s house she gingerly knocked on his door again. By now it was dark and dad was quite agitated. “WHO IS IT?” he yelled with bravado and fear in his voice.

“Dad, it’s me. I brought you FRENCH FRIES!”

There was silence. Then she heard his hand on the chain lock, and the door swung open. She almost handed them over to him, but at the last minute she saw a very real possibility that he would simply grab the fries and slam the door. Ellen was thinking on her feet.

“Hi dad, I brought you some French fries! Let’s go sit at the table and eat them together,” all the while holding them just beyond his grasp. They sat down at the dining room table and ate the deliciously hot, fried, salty bits together in silence. As soon as they finished, she got up from the table and disappeared into her bedroom. She turned off her light and got into bed, being as “quiet as a mouse”. She didn’t want to risk any kind of disruption. Who knows what he would do.

French Fries are the best bribe in the world. Of course they are.

When Ellen was first locked out, she called me – and she also called our older brother. He wasn’t too sympathetic or understanding of the enormity of the situation. He lived back east so her call came in the midst of his own family heading off to bed. By this time he’d had plenty of his own frustrations with our father. All this to say – he wasn’t much help.

“Just tell him who you are and tell him to let you in.”

Dad was not someone that responded well to his children telling him what to do, way before dementia had ever raised its unpredictable head.

Some months later…IT HAPPENED TO PAUL! Dad locked him out. And because of dad’s issues with needing to be the alpha-male, he was even more aggressive sounding toward my brother, feeling extremely threatened by some big, male stranger trying to enter his home. Paul COULD NOT believe it. He was really ticked off. He called Ellen, and to her credit, instead of goading him…talking to him the way he’d talked to her, she simply said, “Paul, go get some FRENCH FRIES.”

He did. It worked. I’m telling you, “French Fries”: it works every time.

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