En español | Three times a week for the past three years, Diane Pope and her adoptive father shared a ritual: She'd take the wheel of his 22-year-old gold Mercury Grand Marquis, which still runs like new, pull up to his Alzheimer's care facility, in San Antonio, Texas, and whisk him off for a long drive to places he remembered.
The coronavirus pandemic has, for now, put an end to those rides. But Pope, 74, is committed to maintaining a routine with Gerald “Jerry” Lee, 95, the only dad she's ever known.
Pope was 3 when Jerry married Pope's mother and adopted her. Their bond was immediate. He stood up to her mother, with whom Pope struggled, and told Pope she could achieve whatever she wanted. He gave Pope her first car, a gray 1948 Studebaker with a 1953 Chevy engine that “looked like a tank,” she recalled, but would keep her safe. He insisted she learn how to change the tires and oil. To this day he introduces her to people as “my little girl.”
Jerry became a machinist at San Antonio's former Kelly Air Force Base (now Kelly Field) at 16, before heading off to serve in World War II, a chapter in his life he would never discuss. He worked on small engines and motors and, later, started a small engine-repair business, focusing on lawn mowers and equipment.
He designed the home Pope's parents lived in for more than 50 years, which sat on six acres, nestled in a forest of more than 100 trees that Jerry planted himself. He told her he'd never leave that house and would have to be taken out “feet first."
Pope became a nurse who dedicated much of her career to public health: researching stress on caregivers, advocating for fluoridation in drinking water, implementing substance abuse programs. She also got licensed as a hypnotherapist. She lived in Houston, moved to Arkansas’ southern Ozark Mountains for four years, then returned to San Antonio, in 2015, to help look after her parents as they declined.
Her mom, who died two years ago, had dementia; Jerry had the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Three years ago, they moved into Brookdale Nacogdoches, a memory care home he loves and that's reported no cases of the coronavirus.
Taking away her dad's car proved harder than moving him. Throughout his life, when Jerry needed to clear his head, he'd go for a drive. So Pope made a deal with him. She'd pick him up at 2 in the afternoon every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday to take him for a drive.
They'd weave through downtown streets, past his old haunts. He'd show her where the Woolworth's once stood and point out the Alamo. They'd order four chopped-beef sandwiches at his favorite barbecue joint. He made sure she noticed every American flag they passed. Then she'd wind through the back roads of the park where he went on long-ago dates with her mother. They'd pull over to admire baby ducks, goslings and egrets, and people-watch, making up stories about those they'd see.
Now they rely on virtual video chats. His little girl engages him with old family photos, including pictures from favorite camping trips and current images of his favorite destinations. This is their new routine, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 2 p.m. on the dot.
This article grew out of our effort to collect stories of people with loved ones in nursing homes. Share your story.