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"The Camping Fork"

April 20, 2011 - Jennifer Brookens
*An excerpt from my family's memoirs of helping care for my father as he suffered from dementia*

April 2011: "Should I put the camping fork with the rest of the forks," I asked my mom as I tried to help her with the dishes from Sunday dinner. "Yeah, just put them all together," she said. "I thought I sold all the camping equipment, but that piece was obviously separated." "The Camping Fork," as I referred to it, had a thick, smooth black handle that was heavy duty. I remembered we had four forks and four spoons (maybe four butter knives) but they were only used when we were out camping along with the pots and pans that went with our little Coleman portable grill, and the plastic plates with the blue cornflowers on them. Not to mention the tents and sleeping bags, the motor boat, the canoe. All considered our "camping gear." All just memories for us now. Sold when we knew we couldn't go camping with Daddy anymore.

It was spring 2004, and to borrow a quote from Charles Dickens, it was the best and worst of times. I was a new Mommy, but we were losing my father to severe dementia. Ever since my husband and I moved to Minnesota shortly after we graduated from college, we'd been trying to find our way back closer to both our parents. But the job situation never fully cooperated. Then came our first child, our daughter, in 2003. And my dad did something some experts believe was impossible. He bonded with her. He fell in love. We had barely left the hospital when my mom was asking about how much real estate was in the area. Six months later, my mom was preparing to take early retirement and move to Truman. Memorial Day weekend 2004, the three of us headed back to Casper, Wyoming to what I could call home for one last time. We would be bringing one of my parent's vehicles back with us, and loading up what we could. And going through all my stuff I'd accumulated the first 20-some years of my life.

Picking through and discarding stuff you've had for decades is tough enough, but it was even worse with my father's dementia. Not only was it impossible to explain to him what was going on, but he was already deeply paranoid about people "stealing" from him. It was our job to distract him as my mother sold off the boat. My poor mother was so stressed. She told me about how my dad had hit a man who had come to one of the garage sales. (Luckily, the garage saler understood the circumstances, and didn't pick a fight. Also no bad injuries). So in the chaos of things, my feelings of cleaning out my childhood/teenage/early college years were pushed to the backburner as I took a deep breath (musty and dusty as it was) and started saving and pitching. I said goodbye to the wardrobe I thought I was soooo fat for wearing, but would kill to be that size today (especially since the 80s are making a comeback). I saved the collection of hardback children's books for my own children (except for a few that were loved too much and were falling apart). A chest full of toys I hadn't laid eyes on since the last move when I was 13 was sadly cast aside. A lost stack of love letters from a past summer romance was read with hindsight, and I was content enough to throw them away. And some embarrassing college party photos were quickly trashed when someone came over and wanted to see them.

I was also saying goodbye to the house I knew as "home." I remember pulling out of the driveway and glimpsing at it in my rearview mirror. Then as I hit the end of the driveway, I saw the dog sitting next to several full trash bags. He had been part of a game I got for Christmas one year called, "My Dog Has Fleas." The fleas, of course, were long gone. The sad, plastic bloodhound looked dejected as I pulled away. And the tears for the "official" end of my childhood home came. But they only lasted to the end of the block, as my daughter squaked from her carseat in the back. It was a reminder that the car (and the car behind me) held the things important enough to bring along to the next chapter in our lives.


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