I went to visit Dad and he smiled when he saw me, but he couldn't remember my name. He was sitting straight backed at a table in the common room. Ten minutes early for his lunch, he was waiting.
A friendly nurse had found me wandering, par for the course in this place I guess. She knew Dad by name: Ah yes. He's in the Sky Unit. Locked doors. Key code entry. People seeming not to care about fashion or colour coordination shuffling around with no apparent aim. Except for Dad. He was waiting for lunch.
I could sense he didn't know who I was. Although it seems strange to say it, he was very clever in covering that up. Smiling and responding with small talk learned years ago, he batted the conversation back to me. All of it nonsense of course, but well meant. He knew I was someone he should remember.
It would have been unkind to point out his slip ups. It was only going to be a short visit. Somehow the essence of Dad was still there, but so much of him was gone. The strong, adventurous, funny man who could fill a room with his charm (and who could impress me with his practical intellect and scare me with his capriciousness) was now sitting waiting for his lunch without complaint; a well behaved child.
He wanted to show me his room. I followed him for the short walk. A single bed, neatly made. A bedside table. A chair. An empty bookshelf. Well almost empty. There was a framed photo from one of my sisters. The words on the frame said he was the world's best Grandad. I could see it was special to him. He explained how the little girl in the photo wanted him to be her Grandad. He couldn't stop smiling.
Eventually I told him my name. He dropped his eyes as he admitted he had forgotten. I think he was a little ashamed.
It was only ever going to be a short visit. I told him he was a good Dad and put my arms around him. The pain and sadness of decades melted in that hug.
He walked with me to the locked door. When the nurse opened it I looked back and he had already turned away.
Dad lives in Townsville, about 1300 km by road north of where I live. He is 86 years old. I flew up to see him for the first time in his nursing home and flew back the same day.
Dad left the family when I was thirteen: A long time ago.
We reconciled years ago before his dementia took over. I am very very grateful for that.
I suspect I will not see him again.