Mr. Michael Matsuda is a business associate of dad’s, and someone he speaks to often. As a matter of fact, dad is speaking to him right now. Mr. Matsuda just said something funny, which makes dad laugh out loud. Dad manages to say something like, “That’s right! That’s right!” through his guffaws, in response to the thing that Mr. Matsuda just said to make him laugh. Dad isn’t on the phone and Mr. Matsuda isn’t here in the room. If Mr. Matsuda did exist at some point in dad’s past, he’s certainly not here in this moment.
About a week into the new year, dad began talking to imaginary friends (IFs), much the way kids do. But when your 78 year-old dad, whose had cognitive challenges since his stroke almost four years ago, suddenly starts entertaining invisible friends and colleagues, you feel more alarmed than amused.
It started with some confusion about his wife’s son who passed away many years ago. Dad insisted that his step-son was on his way home. We delicately reminded him that our step-brother had long passed and was in a cemetery, to which dad responded, “I know honey,” and then, “but he’s coming home.”
For the most part, dad’s interactions with his IFs are lively and good-natured. A couple of times he’s had arguments with someone and has even seen a woman sitting on the windowsill. Obviously concerned, I researched and stumbled upon a number of theories, including this old chestnut: talking to spirits on the other side as one prepares to die.
During these past, at times, trying years of dad’s recovery, I’ve become the kind of person who can cry on a dime, be brutally protective of my dad and remarkably pragmatic in moments of great distress. So, when dad answered my inquiries about his new friends and colleagues with a knowing, “You’ll find out soon sweetheart,” I didn’t read too much into it. But when he invited me to a big party that all these people would be attending, where the reasons for these covert conversations would be revealed, on MARCH 2ND (the fourth anniversary of his stroke), I lost my shit a little.
I pulled myself together, gathered my shit and began paying closer attention to whom dad is talking to and how he’s feeling when he’s talking to them – engaged; energetic; happy. Is he creating IFs because he’s lonely? Bored? Does he have an underlying infection that’s fucking with his mind? Then again, aside from these IFs, he’s been otherwise cognitively clear and medically stable. Or, when he’s talking to his deceased mother and brother, is he ACTUALLY TALKING WITH THEM?
There’s definitely some cross-wiring going on. For instance, many of his IFs have the same first name, Michael. Their last names – Matsumoto, Stravinsky, Gilmour – change daily and can totally be tracked to something on the news or a piece of music he was listening to, etc. But I can’t deny that, but for a few agitated incidents, he’s been quite happy. And putting my own feelings of loss aside, I think about how cool and right it is that dad is taking charge of his own death, especially considering he’s had no control over anything else in his post-stroke life. And how awesome it is that all the people he loves and misses on the “other side” are helping him plan a big-ass welcome party to boot!
Getting back to this joy stuff that I’m such a fan of these days, I’m ready to embrace any theory that promotes more joy and less fear. Fear is fucking bullshit, and yet it still manages to weasle its way in there, in the most inconvenient moments.
Time will tell whether the reason for dad’s IFs is a urinary tract infection, increasing dementia, early stage of Alzheimer’s or an eager anticipation of a long-awaited reunion, but anything that brings him comfort, peace, a few laughs and a bit of joy is fine by me.