Love and Lapses Producer B.A. Parker started recording her calls with her father because she was concerned about the care at his nursing home. But the recordings gave her a window into something very different: their relationship. So she started recording her calls with her grandmother as well. A story of relationships told through the small recorded calls between people who love each other.
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Love and Lapses

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HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

The other day, I came across a discussion thread by lady tango experts. They were interested in tips on what they called role reversal, which is, basically, when the woman in tango takes the lead. Apparently, this is really hard to pull off because couples who practice together for a long time just get used to being in fixed roles. So when the woman tries to lead, the man ends up panicking or doing what's called back-leading, which is like backseat driving but for dance. Of course, this kind of panic and confusion doesn't just happen when feminists try and take over the world of tango. It happens in all kinds of situations where the roles we're used to performing get mixed up.

Our next story is from producer B.A. Parker on what she did when two people she loved started to become unrecognizable to her. Here's Parker.

BA PARKER, BYLINE: Do you worry about, sometimes, when you're forgetful?

GRAMS: Sometimes, I forget. I worry about - you know, when I forget things.

B PARKER: That's my Grams (ph). She's 96, and she's been diagnosed with being, well, 96.

So I heard you're getting a new refrigerator.

GRAMS: Yeah.

B PARKER: Do you remember what it looks like?

GRAMS: (Laughter) I forgot. Whatever it is, I like it.

B PARKER: On the phone with my mom the other day, she said, I miss my mommy. And I told her, this is your mom. It's just a different version. She didn't find it all that comforting, which I understood because I, too, find myself disquieted by these new versions of people I love.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello?

B PARKER: Hi, may I please speak to John Parker (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: John Parker - hold on a second, please. Mr. Parker, get up, get up, get up.

JOHN PARKER: What's this? Hello?

B PARKER: Hey, Dad.

J PARKER: Hey, baby. How are you?

B PARKER: Fine. You?

J PARKER: I'm OK.

B PARKER: About four years ago, my dad was diagnosed with stage 3 vascular dementia. It's the second-most common of the dementias, not as glamorous as your Alzheimer's or your Lewy body. When it comes to taking the light out of a parent's eyes, it still does the trick.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

B PARKER: My dad's the one who gave me my name - Brittany; Britt-any (ph) if you ask my mom. It's girly in a generic late-80s kind of way, like a white cheerleader on "Saved By The Bell." It's why I go by B.A. Parker. But my dad - he was obsessed with this name. In fact, he refused to sign my birth certificate unless I was given this name. And now...

J PARKER: Who's Brittany?

B PARKER: That's me, Brittany.

J PARKER: Oh, OK.

B PARKER: He doesn't even remember it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

B PARKER: My parents divorced when I was a kid. He didn't live with us. Inevitably, a lot of our time was spent on the phone. I still remember 6-year-old me used to call him at 2 a.m. to talk to him about what I was watching on television while the house was asleep, questions like - what's an opera? Is "Melrose Place" real? Or what's a vasectomy? He always picked up, and he always answered matter-of-factly, like I was an adult.

Now my dad's 71, and he's the one watching television. My stepmother takes care of him while he lives in a residential nursing home. His new involuntary pastime is watching "Golden Girls" in a living room with nonverbal residents who can't laugh at Dorothy and Sophia's antics.

I'll let you go back to sleep.

J PARKER: Oh, I’m not asleep. I'm sitting up here at the TV, waiting for a couple of people to get here to get out of here.

B PARKER: Oh, OK.

I started recording the conversations with my dad about two years ago after hearing nurses in the background making fun of him. I thought as an added bonus, I might get a glimpse of my old dad who knew me.

You need anything?

J PARKER: Yes.

B PARKER: What you need?

J PARKER: You.

B PARKER: Me?

J PARKER: Yes.

B PARKER: And even when it started to slip and he couldn't quite call up my name, I told myself, he knows me, but he can't form the words to say that he knows me. Like, it's on the tip of his tongue, but it comes out niece or broccoli.

UNCLE SKIP: Hey, it's Uncle Skip (ph), wondering how you’re doing, dear. Hope the best for you. I love you. You are the best.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bye, Bri (ph). Talk to you soon, girl.

B PARKER: After a while, I started to let go a little and make up new versions of myself; whimsical life updates. I'd tell him I was getting engaged to a war photographer and that he and I just bought a parakeet named Gino (ph), told him I had taken a sightseeing trip to Havana with a group of elderly nuns who'd prayed over me so he didn't have to worry about me anymore. And it worked for a while.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

B PARKER: But now it's undeniable. He doesn't remember 6-year-old shaved-eyebrows me or 12-year-old quiz-bowl-team me or fake-glamorous-war-bride me, either. More often than not, Dad confuses me with my older half-brother.

J PARKER: OK. You take care. I love you.

B PARKER: All right, love you, too.

J PARKER: All right. Bye-bye.

B PARKER: Bye-bye.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Who are you talking to?

J PARKER: My son.

B PARKER: A few months ago, I walked into the nursing home. I signed in, and I sat next to him while he kept his eyes closed. The only acknowledgement I got from him was, yes, dear. When I went to sign out, I noticed I'd only been there for nine minutes. And I slunk out the door in shame.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Can I help you?

B PARKER: Hi, may I please speak to John Parker?

I guess I keep trying to record because he's my dad, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: He's actually not here at the moment.

B PARKER: And what am I supposed to do? I can't find, really, any version of him to hold on to. And I can't get over the fact that there's a person I'm becoming in the world that he won't know.

Hi, may I please to speak to John Parker?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: He's out at the daycare.

B PARKER: Hi, may I please to speak to John Parker?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: He's right now having dinner.

B PARKER: Hello. Hi, may I please to speak to John Parker?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Yeah, he’s not understanding how to speak.

B PARKER: He can't speak on the phone?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Yeah, because he's a little confused this afternoon, yup.

B PARKER: OK. Well, I'll check - I'll try again, tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRAMS: Hello?

ROSIN: NPR's INVISIBILIA will be back in a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Here's Parker on the phone with Grams.

GRAMS: Hello?

B PARKER: Hey, Grams.

GRAMS: Hi, Brittany.

B PARKER: With my Grams, I can feel her grasping to hold on to me, so it keeps me trying to. She forgets what day it is or where she is or if she had dinner. But she can always find some version of me.

GRAMS: I enjoyed you the last short stay we had the other day.

B PARKER: Yeah, I'm sorry it was so short, Grammy.

GRAMS: Yeah, well, I can understand. You be good.

B PARKER: I will.

GRAMS: And you know Grandmama love you and miss you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

B PARKER: For her 95th birthday, I got my Grams a journal with the hopes that she'd carry it around the house with her and write down things in lieu of remembering. She had told me that's what she'd been doing.

I did something to my wrist, but I don't know what.

GRAMS: Your wrist? What did you do to your wrist?

B PARKER: I don't know, but it hurts.

GRAMS: You got any Vicks?

B PARKER: And then I'd come to Grammy-sit (ph) and help sort out her mail, only to find that her journal was empty. Then, on the back of a Sears bill, I noticed something. February 8, 2018 - today I talked to Brit. She said her wrist is sore. I told her to rub it in some Vicks and that should take the soreness out of it. She was writing down our phone calls on the nearest thing she could find, trying to hang on to little Brittany and trying to hang on to her teacher self, writing in her intricate, perfect cursive.

January 9, 2018 - talked to Brit today. She says it's cold there like it is here. She said she's keeping warm. May 4 - start reading the book of Ruth so I can discuss it with Brittany. She has to read it, too. February 9, 2018 - I talked to Brit today. I asked her if she was making enough money to take care of herself. She said no. She needs to make more money.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

B PARKER: Truth be told, these notes broke my heart a little because you could see the strain. These were things that, in years past, she would remember so easily and not need to write down. But here she was trying to hold on to the version of her that took care of me. And something about that allowed me to let go and become a new thing I had never been - the person who takes care of her.

Do you sometimes get confused?

GRAMS: Yeah.

B PARKER: And how do you feel?

GRAMS: Scared.

B PARKER: Do you get to talk to anybody?

GRAMS: Sometimes, I do. And sometimes, I don't. But I come out of it.

B PARKER: Is it good to have me or Mom there?

GRAMS: Mmm hmm.

B PARKER: Is that why you call, sometimes?

GRAMS: Call what? Call you?

B PARKER: Yeah.

GRAMS: Mmm hmm.

B PARKER: I got you.

GRAMS: Mmm hmm. What are you up to today?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

B PARKER: With dementia, the rare moments of clarity can hit brightly and sporadically, like finding a dollar bill in a worn pair of jeans. On one recent call, Grams began reminiscing about a train ride me, her and my mom took from Baltimore to Los Angeles when I was a toddler.

GRAMS: I’d wake up mornings and look out - I was sitting next to a window on the train. And it was all clear and everything.

B PARKER: This sounds like the old Grams, the one whose memories are still sharp and vivid. I was about to hang up when Grams remembers one more thing.

Well, I'm...

GRAMS: You slept most of the night. I was on a seat, you know? They had double seats. You were on there with me, and you slept most of the night.

B PARKER: And then it hits me. This is how we stay connected. She summons up a piece of me I never even knew about. And I summon her back up as the keeper of family memories. It's much less lonely this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

J PARKER: How things are going?

B PARKER: It's going all right.

I know those memories are somewhere inside my dad. There are no magic words to bring him back. But once in a while, there's a melody. To fill the silence during visits with my dad, I started playing The Drifters, the '60s doo-wop group. And he loved this song called "I've Got Sand In My Shoes," which I know has a funny story attached to it that I can't remember. And the only person I can ask thinks he's talking to my 50-year-old brother. But not long ago, I played him the song, and I saw the hint of a smile on my dad's face. Then, all of a sudden, the clouds briefly parted. And my dad started singing the words.

J PARKER: (Singing) Sand in my shoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT SAND IN MY SHOES")

THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) Oh, the blanket that we used to share, how we fell in love down by the sea.

B PARKER: He might not have known where he was or what day it was. But for a moment, he seemed to know who I was. When I said, hi, Dad, he took my hand and he kissed it. And I was just his daughter Brittany, again.

Hey, Dad.

J PARKER: Hey, sweetie. How you doing?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Hanna Rosin, and Alix Spiegel. Our senior editor is Anne Gudenkauf, and our executive producer is Cara Tallo. This episode was edited by me and Derek John. INVISIBILIA is produced by Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle with help from B.A. Parker and Kia Miakka Natisse. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom. We had help from Oliver Wang, Daveed Goodhertz (ph) and Rachel Carbonara (ph); fact-checking by Will Chase (ph). Our technical director is Andy Huether and our vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. Special thanks to Mark Memmott, Michael Ratner (ph) Rhonda Parker (ph) and Gene Parker (ph). Music for this episode from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was developed in part at the Third Coast Radio Residency at Ragdale. We'll be back next month with a new episode, so stay subscribed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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