As I kneel down to tie my dad’s boot laces, his sudden dependence on my knot-tying skills triggers a powerful memory. It’s the summer of 1987, the air is sticky, and I’m a ponytailed little girl sitting in the entryway of our house. “Daddy,” I beg him, “will you tell me the story again?” He smiles, kneels down, loops a pink lace between his thumb and two fingers, and begins to recite a mnemonic that still makes me giggle: “Once around the tree, the fox chases the rabbit.”
Fast-forward 33 years. I’m not that little girl anymore, and my father’s not the same man.
We’re in Hawaii for our biennial family vacation, three generations of Erbs: my children, my sister’s kids, and our 70-something parents. Our plan: build sandcastles, explore lava formations, and gorge on fresh fish. But as we head out to hike Kīlauea Iki Crater, I’m confronted—in the mundane form of an unlaced hiking boot—with the stark reality of my dad’s decline.
I never thought age would catch him. My dad ran his first marathon at 50, rode his bike across Iowa at 65, and started leading hikes in the Sonoran Desert at 69. So it came as a shock to me how unsteady he looked on the hardened lava lake. Once upon a time my dad hovered over my sister and me on these trails. Now we hover over him.
The next morning, I find him lounging on the porch, coughing and rubbing his feet like there is an itch that won’t go away. My sister and I bring out cups of coffee and watch as his four grandchildren trickle outside to clamber around him. He laughs and jokes with my youngest, a bowling ball named Torrey.
“Watch out, Willem!” he says. That’s the name of my sister’s son.
“Torrey, dad,” I gently remind him.
“Oh right. Torrey.”
The realization hits me hard: The invincible man who taught me how to swim, hike, and crack open a coconut is no longer invincible. I just don’t know what is ailing him, and I’m too afraid to ask. If something was wrong, he’d tell me, right?
Growing up, I thought there was only one big talk: the sex talk. Turns out there are two—the second one is the death talk. My parents aren’t graveside yet, of course, but their insomnia, constant aches, and growing collection of pill bottles coupled with the uptick in their visits to medical specialists portend a new role for me—to transition from child to caregiver.
On the porch, I summon the courage to begin that second talk, the one that forces both child and parent to confront mortality. It shifts the tectonic familial plates and makes the room feel unsteady.
I start with a softball. “Dad, what’s wrong with your feet?” “Oh, you don’t know? I have neuropathy,” he says. “The nerves don’t work right any longer so my feet constantly feel like someone is pricking them.”
I take a breath, and continue. “And your lungs? Have you checked them out?”
“My lungs? What’s wrong with my lungs?”
“You cough all the time,” I say.
“I do?” He looks surprised.
And that leads to the third question, the one that resurfaces whenever he calls Torrey the wrong name, or forgets a story I told him only moments before. Does he not know he coughs? Or can he not remember that he coughs?
I glance at my mom. The worry on her face adds to my growing concern over her. Her lifelong anxiety is worsening, her knees are swollen and painful, and lately she’s only been able to sleep in two- to three-hour stretches. She’s tired and sore during the day and a zombie at night.
After dinner, I read Torrey and his sister to sleep and reemerge in the living room at 7:30pm. The upstairs is now empty. My husband and my sister’s family are still downstairs. The hum of the television escapes under my parents’ shut bedroom door. I realize it’s not just my dad who is changing, it’s my mom, too. Just last year we would stay awake until 10pm watching movies, playing games, and working puzzles. Now I’m alone on an eight-person couch, sipping wine and wondering, worrying, where all this is headed.
Two months later, my four-year-old daughter, Zoey, and I fly home to Iowa on the pretense of visiting apple orchards, but I’m also here for a more serious purpose: to join my parents at their annual doctor appointments. I need to figure out what’s wrong.
As a kid, I figured I’d locked into some organized church one day, but now my spiritual practices are outdoors, my therapist a dirt trail, and my God the wind in the trees and the sun on my face. There is no reassuring dogma for me. Just some innate faith that our personal end is not the end of us for all eternity.
Such mortal bargaining always summons a single memory: It’s a cold winter’s day in 1990, and I’m eight years old, curled into a small ball on a heather-grey couch. I’m hyperventilating, and my mom is begging to know what’s wrong. Between heaving breaths, I squeak out “Mommy, I don’t want you to die.”
I am consumed with questions about death in that moment. What happens when you die? Where do you go? Why do you have to die? When will you die? I can’t breathe, so my mom wraps me tightly in her arms and tells me about God, and heaven, and the people waiting for us there, and how death is far away. I sink into her chest and think how desperately I want it to be true.
I still desperately want it to be true.
The first appointment is a bust. It’s just a scheduled blood draw; no doctor visit. I try to reschedule at the nurse’s desk, but my mom interrupts to say she doesn’t really need an appointment, that she’s just here because her daughter wants to know if cannabis might help.
She’s right—sort of. The pretense of me joining today’s appointment is to ask whether CBD could alleviate some of her problems. But my real objective is to ask the docs firsthand why my parents aren’t acting like my parents.
“My mom has anxiety and is having trouble sleeping,” I tell the nurse. “She just wanted to know if CBD might help.”
My mom grabs my arm and shoots me a stern look. “I don’t want people to think I’m a druggie.”
Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to a WWII veteran and an emotionally volatile housewife, my mom had a stressful upbringing. Grandma made it clear how unhappy she was to be married with children. My grandpa had PTSD from his time fighting overseas and confided to my mom about his depression.
You wouldn’t blame someone for breaking under the weight of that childhood. But my mom isn’t the breaking kind. She did have to fight the cycles of anxiety and fear that threatened to rule her life. But where grandma was cruel, my mom was loving; where grandma thought only of herself, my mom thought only of my sister and me. She slept with us whenever we got sick, made pancake feasts on Sundays, and sent me to a therapist when I started having separation-anxiety-fueled panic attacks. Her primary mission: to protect us from the worst things in life.
That’s why she clipped articles about the dangers of under-age drinking and the horrors of marijuana.
Given all that, it’s no wonder my mother is hesitant about trying marijuana. The War on Drugs firmly entrenched cannabis in her mind as an evil gateway drug that would fry her brain like an egg—and ruin her reputation.
“Is THC the bad one?” she asks later, in the car.
“THC is psychoactive,” I say. “I want you to consider trying CBD.” I’ve seen the positive effects of CBD in my own life and in others fighting anxiety and depression. It may not be the real reason I flew home, but I do genuinely think it might bring them relief.
“But THC isn’t bad,” I add. “There’s a tea made for grandmas that has just a smidge of THC and might help you stay asleep.”
“I was a model child,” she says, “so I’m uneducated in the ways of alternative medicine. Until I was 21, I never drank, took drugs, or smoked—and then I had a margarita at worst.”
I laugh. “Mom, I promise you’ll still be a good girl even if you try CBD.”
Zoey and I are lying on my childhood bed, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling, and she is telling me that unicorn land is her favorite place in the world. “What’s yours, mommy?”
I tell her a story: I’m 12 years old, on summer vacation with my family in Leadville, Colorado, and asleep in bed when my dad charges in, buzzing with pent-up energy. He says, “Girls, you’re wasting the day. Wake up!” I roll over, snuggling deeper into the comforter. My mom calls from the other room, “Let them sleep.”
But my dad wins, and in less than an hour we’re dressed in cotton T-shirts, wearing hiking boots, and driving up a dirt road to go climb a mountain. I’m halfway up the trail, listening to my dad joke about mountain lions, when storm clouds roll in. My mother looks nervous and calls out, “Remember what your brother said, ‘If you hear thunder, it’s time to go down.’”
But my dad yells, “Come on girls. We’re almost to the top.” I follow him up the mountain and into the storm, crouching beneath aspens and looking out into a lush meadow full of abandoned, century-old miners’ equipment. Thunder claps around us. My dad laughs, “Isn’t this neat?”
I’ve never forgotten the meadow, the rusted equipment sparkling in the rain, and my father by my side. It’s my favorite place in the world.
As a kid, my dad was what they once called an active child. He grew up in Kentucky and played hide-and-seek in an area edged with cliffs. Grandma would tell him, “Don’t play near the cliff. You’ll fall and die.” But wild children are hard to tame. Dad did fall, but he didn’t die.
He survived with two broken arms, two missing front teeth, and a scarred face. You’d think his constant childhood flirtation with cliff faces and bodily harm would have made him more cautious as an adult, but instead, he took his kids into the mountains, rain and lighting be damned.
Now it’s time for his doctor appointment. On the way, he tells me that during his junior year at the University of Iowa, he slept on a screened-in porch with plastic-wrapped windows for insulation and a drug dealer for a roommate.
“The rent was cheap,” he says. “And I didn’t find out he was a drug dealer until later.”
“So you never smoked?” I ask
He gives me his trademark crooked grin. “Well…”
Dad tells me how he graduated college, moved to Minneapolis, married and divorced quickly, and smoked weed a few times. But he gave it up to return home to Iowa to work for his father.
We enter the doctor’s office and, to my surprise, dad lets me do the talking. I’m my father’s daughter, so I methodically lay out my concerns. I talk about the pain in his feet, his balance issues, and his persistent cough. And I whisper the one thing I don’t want to say in front of him.
“We need to check his memory.”
The doctor turns to him and says, “You thought your memory issues were stress-related last time. Do you now think it’s more?”
He looks at me.
“Stress and lack of sleep certainly makes his memory issues more pronounced,” I say. “But there’s something else going on.”
I turn my head, and tell myself not to cry. This is about him, not me.
But it’s about me, too, isn’t it? If his mind is going, he’ll forget this moment and I’ll stew on it forever. I’m not just my father’s daughter: I’m my mother’s, too, and if we know how to do one thing better than anything else it’s how to worry.
They take a chest x-ray, and we schedule neurological tests. I pepper the doctor with questions on the process—and about cannabis. “Is CBD an option for him? To help ease his aches and pain so he can sleep better?”
She won’t say either way. It’s the hospital’s maddening policy on not to discuss cannabis with patients unless they have a medical marijuana license. But when I press her, asking whether my dad will die if he takes it with his current medications, she finally admits that it won’t conflict.
I order him a bottle of Moon Mother’s peppermint-flavored CBD tincture that night. My mother hates mint, so I order a cinnamon-flavored tincture for her and hope for the best.
I wake up at 2am with anxiety. Snuggled in my childhood bed, I want to run upstairs and curl in bed with my mom and have her tell me everything will be okay. I know the turns in the hall, the creaks in the stairs, and the numbers of steps by heart.
As a little kid, I made the journey up the two flights more times than I can remember. I close my eyes and see it: I’m six years old and can’t sleep. I climb the staircase and creep into my parents’ room. “Mommy, I had a nightmare,” I lie. “Can I please sleep with you?” My mom grabs my hand, lifts me into bed, and squeezes me tight. I curl against her warmth and fall asleep to the rhythm of my father’s snores.
My reveries end when my own daughter rolls over and flings her arm across my chest. That’s right, I remember, I’m the mom now. So I lay there, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling until fatigue finally reclaims me.
I wake up to good news. My dad’s chest x-ray is clear. The cough is caused by a medication they’ll be changing. I cross that worry oﬀ my list, but the memory issues still haunt me.
I leave Zoey coloring with my mom and drive to the local coffee shop to share the good news with my high school best friend. She hugs me tightly, and I cling until she lets go. She’s now a nurse practitioner, so I list my parents’ health issues, my CBD quest, and the doctor’s initial refusal to say whether CBD would negatively interact with my dad’s myriad of medications.
She scoffs. “It’s no different than a patient asking about an over-the-counter herbal supplement. It’s her job to tell you if there will be a negative reaction.”
I return home to find my mom looking stricken. She just found out her own best friend from high school died a week earlier. She tells my dad, and an hour later tells him again. I tell him a third time as we’re driving home from an errand. The news finally sticks, and I eavesdrop with relief as he comforts my mom.
The next day, I recount the experience to my sister who lives 30 minutes away. We’re rolling through yellowing cornfields as I tell her how dad couldn’t seem to hold onto the news. The fears roll off my tongue. I tell her how I’ve been reading medical journals, combing newspaper articles, looking for cures, and ways to make time stand still.
Cannabis really might be a time slower, I say. CBD has significantly helped to alleviate my aches and pains, and my anxiety. Since starting CBD last year, I’ve managed to fall asleep most nights without a pit of anxiety in my stomach. And it looks like it could be more than just an ibuprofen alternative. New research, like a 2017 study from The Salk Institute, has found evidence that cannabinoids could help reduce inflammation and the buildup of toxic amyloid beta proteins in brain cells, potentially reversing dementia.
“What do you think about CBD?” I ask.
“I don’t know too much about it,” my sister says. “In some ways, it seems a little faddish. It’s everywhere, and it’s in everything. But I do know people who use it and have some positive effects from it.”
“And dad? Do you think dad has changed?”
“You know, whenever I had a problem, I would call dad,” she says. “He never asked us what we thought. He’d just say, ‘This is what you’re going to do.’”
She trails off into silence.
I know where she’s going. That ‘boss dad’ has been fading over the last year. Now when I call and ask him for advice, he says, “Hmm, that’s interesting” and “Well, I’ll have to think about that.” At first, I’d grow angry whenever I heard those responses, and end the conversation in a rush. But since our time together in Hawaii, I’ve realized that my father is changing, and so must I.
My husband and I drive to my childhood home for Christmas with the kids. Before we left, Zoey and I mailed a letter to Santa Claus letting him know we’d be in Iowa for Christmas and that she’d love a sparkly unicorn more than anything in the world.
“Mommy, when can I meet Santa Claus?” she asks, as we drive east.
Zoey’s love for Santa Claus brings another memory to the surface: It’s Christmas Eve in 1986, and I’m a sleepy-eyed little girl in My Little Pony pajamas running up a creaky staircase calling for my mom. She meets me at the top, “Honey, what are you doing awake?”
We hear rustling in the living room and my mom whispers, “It’s Santa. Quick, don’t let him see you!” We rush up the stairs and curl up in bed. “Where’s dad?” I ask. “In the bathroom,” she says. Moments later, my dad walks in and I snuggle deep under the covers, listening for reindeer hooves clicking across the roof.
“Mommy, did you hear me?” asks Zoey, bringing me back to the present day. “Santa is bringing me a unicorn, right?”
“I’m sure he will,” I say, as we arrive to an Iowa Christmas wonderland: The decorations are out, the tree is decked, and mountains of presents threaten to block the exits. Two dozen Christmases play out in my head: My dad chopping down our tree at the Christmas farm. My grandparents’ heads bent over a puzzle. My sister and I fighting over who got to put the angel on top of the tree. My mom baking sugar cookies.
When I tell my mother she went overboard this year, that my kids don’t need so many presents, she stops me cold. “Christina, this might be our last good Christmas. I just want it to be special.”
My heart sinks. “Mom, we’re still going to have good Christmases,” I insist, trying to comfort her.
“Maybe,” she sighs. Dad’s second neurological test is 10 days away, and it’s weighing heavily on her.
She might be right. Dementia claims a person piece by piece until the shell is there, and they are gone. Sometimes I talk to my dad and think he’s fine. Then, the next day, he doesn’t remember my birthdate, and I think, That’s not right. How could you forget 37 birthdays?
Once upon a time my mother played Mrs. Claus in this room. Now I’m the one stuffing stockings: stickers and markers for my kids, and CBD bath bombs, tinctures, and gummies for my parents. To my surprise, my mother loves the sleep-inducing gummies. She falls asleep within minutes every night, sleeping heavily for long stretches, and the change feels remarkable. The better-quality slumber allows her to stay awake until 10pm, meaning I can put the kids down at 7pm and come back to a spirited mom who’s ready to play a board game or work on another puzzle.
CBD may be gifting my mom with more sleep, but it’s gifting me more time with her—and that’s the one thing I want most in this world: Time.
In the two weeks I’m home over Christmas, the CBD tincture and lotion dramatically improve my dad’s foot pain and I think, I hope, his memory. He asks me about my job, and my heart leaps. Boss Dad is back.
Then he asks me to go for a hike. It’s a simple question but one that brings tears to my eyes. My favorite adventure buddy, the man who hiked across Iceland with me, is not just engaged in my work life, but he wants to hike with me. I throw on shoes, wrap Torrey in a jacket, and we all hop into the car.
We walk the trails of my childhood and reminisce about Abbey, our black lab, and how she used to terrorize the deer, her ratty leash bouncing in the mud as we chased after her. This time, there’s no rambunctious dog, just a two-year-old boy who’s more interested in digging a hole with a stick.
So we don’t make it very far, but the weather is warm and my father’s eyes are sparkling with wit and intelligence. We’re chatting about Torrey’s new words and his lack of regard for his own safety when my father says, “The CBD is working. My feet feel so much better. They still tingle but they don’t hurt anymore.”
I turn my head and try not to cry.
On a Thursday morning in mid-January, the diagnosis finally rolls in: My dad is in the early stages of dementia. The diagnosis doesn’t surprise me, but I weep anyhow. It’s a hard, cold reality.
But it’s a reality my doctor visits, and research, have prepared me for.
I know that my parents aren’t going to live forever. There’s not much I or my favorite plant can do to change life’s most immutable fact. I can hope that the doctors read the Salk study and develop dementia-reversing treatments. I can hope that CBD helps my mom and dad sleep more, reduces their aches and pains, and gives them the energy to play with their grandchildren. I hope we can wring more love and laughter from the years we have left.
Some of that is already happening. But the real gift of all this cannabis chatter may be the way it has opened up our communication. Who knew my dad fired up joints back in the day? It has also helped us evolve our relationship. In timeless, awkward, and awful fashion, my parents and I are trading places. The death talk opened the door to what comes next, and the cannabis talk helped us walk through.
In her medicine cabinet, my mom has lined up their CBD tinctures, lotions, and gummies in a neat row next to their pill bottles. We’re chatting on FaceTime when I bring up a THC chocolate bar that’s supposed to bring on deep sleep with just a nibble.
“Chocolate?” she smiles. “I could try it.”
Zoey yells at me from the mudroom, “I need help.” I say goodbye to my mom and peek my head around the corner. Zoey holds out her rainbow-colored sneakers to me and asks, “Mommy, will you tie my shoes?” I kneel down. Time. It’s rippling away from me in every direction. I kiss her forehead, pinch a loop of laces, and begin to recite, “Once around the tree, the fox chases the rabbit…”