Dad, dementia, and the Cubs

By the time the Cubs made it to the World Series in 2016, Lou’s dementia prevented him from following the team’s incredible season.

cubs dad dementia image
The author and her dad on the night of the big win.

The nursing home was dark and quiet, its yellow-gold hallways empty. It was 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the residents were already in bed. But a light from the TV glowed out of my dad Lou's room. He sat in front of it in his wheelchair, his eyes fixated on the screen. 

Tonight was Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, and the Cubs were poised to win it all for the first time in 108 years. As much as I didn't want to spend this historic night in a quiet suburban nursing home, my sister Caryn and I couldn't let Dad watch alone -- or worse, not realize the game was even on. 

Lou's dementia had worsened in recent years. Once a busy and beloved pharmacist, he was now 30 pounds lighter, white-haired, frail, and unable to even stand without two aides lifting him out of his wheelchair. But his mind was even more far gone. Sometimes he'd forget our names or where he was, roaming the nursing home halls late at night, telling the staff he needed to get to the drugstore. 

Yet, Lou was happy. Everyone, including his caregivers, describe him as "so nice," and he is. He rarely gets mad or complains, even when we were obnoxious teenagers, and never asks for much. Two of his greatest joys in life are his family and the Cubs.

All his life, Lou has been a die-hard Cubs fan. He raised us to love the team, too, insisting we cheer for them even during the years they were truly terrible. He took us to games at Wrigley Field, teaching us the nuances of baseball and showing us how to keep score on the paper game cards. We chomped on peanuts and threw the shells on the ground, feeling rebellious.

By the time the Cubs made it to the World Series in 2016, Lou's dementia prevented him from following the team's incredible season. Occasionally, he'd mention the name of a current player or display his Rain Man-like ability to recite Cubs stats. But most of the time, when we'd watch a game together, he seemed confused by what he was watching. He recognized the Cubs and Wrigley Field, but it's as if he was thinking, where is Ron Santo? Or Rick Reuschel? Or Andre Dawson?

Caryn and I left our husbands and kids somewhat resentfully that night, wanting to watch the game in the comfort of our living rooms, and wondering if Dad would even remember that we were there. 

It turned out to be the best decision we've ever made, and a night we'll cherish for the rest of our lives. 

As baseball fans know, Game 7 of the 2016 World Series was a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat game with multiple lead changes, extra innings and quirky plays.

After midnight, when the Cubs finally clinched, Caryn and I screamed loud enough to wake the whole nursing home. We formed a little circle around Lou's wheelchair, locked arms, and jumped up and down in a long, celebratory group hug. All we said for the next 20 minutes was, "THE CUBS WON THE WORLD SERIES! I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! OH MY GOD!!" At some point, I dropped to my knees in disbelief.

I'm not sure Lou 100 percent grasped what had just happened. But when I looked over at him, the look on his face was something I'll never forget. He had a huge smile, eyes full of tears, and he was holding his little white "W" victory flag we gave him. Maybe for just a few minutes, or maybe just for a few seconds, Lou understood that his beloved Cubs were the champions. He knew that his daughters were there celebrating with him.

That scene of pure joy is something I will carry with me always.

What I've learned from going through this dementia journey with my dad is that it's no longer about experiences -- it's about moments. We can't really do much with him these days, because of his physical and mental limitations. But glimpses of the pre-dementia Lou will sometimes appear. 

He'll sing a line from an old song and smile, or tell a dumb joke and laugh at his own humor. To our astonishment, he can still recite every word to the Hebrew prayers and songs he learned as an Orthodox boy growing up on Chicago's West Side. At my son's bar mitzvah last year, Lou proudly handed him the tallit (prayer shawl) he wore during his own bar mitzvah 67 years earlier. 

Dementia has stolen so much from Lou, including his ability to follow the Cubs. Still, whenever he sees the Cubs on TV, he fixates on the screen just like he did on that fateful night in 2016. And somewhere inside his disappearing mind, I know the joy resurfaces.

Jamie Bartosch is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer who lives in Arlington Heights. See more of her stories at JamieBartosch.com.  




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