‘He’s still my hero’: A difficult diagnosis can’t diminish fatherhood’s emotional power

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 19, 2016

By Katie Scarvey

For the Salisbury Post

After her first marriage ended, Eugenie Eaborn’s children told her she needed to get out more.

Living in Vermont, Eugenie had been a single parent for 13 years to Nina, Anthony, and Nikki. Nina and Anthony were her biological children from her first marriage; Nikki, who had a lot of special needs, was adopted.

So Eugenie went to a club called Cactus Jack’s – which featured country line dancing. She’d won a contest to name the place, which meant she got free drinks for a year—or in her case, free ginger ale.

She met a guy named Denny who asked her on a date. Denny showed up in a Corvette looking “really cute,” Eugenie says, and they had fun. After the date they ended up back at Cactus Jack’s and placed second in a Velcro wall jumping contest.

They began to see each other regularly, and Denny cared so much about having
Eugenie in his life, says Nina Oliver, Eugenie’s daughter from her first marriage, that when he learned Eugenie disapproved of smoking and drinking, Denny quit without complaint.

Nina, who is now the director of the Rowan County Health Department, says Denny was a good stepfather, always kind and supportive of her and her two siblings. “He loves children and was a good role model,” she says.

She was thrilled when Denny got her a job in his truck parts shop when she wanted to earn some money in high school.

Denny followed Eugenie to North Carolina in the late 1990s when Eugenie took a job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a nurse research coordinator working with clinical trials. Denny sold his business, and the couple married in Durham in 1999 and began looking to adopt another child.

They began with a 6-year-old boy named A.J.; when they realized that A.J.’s sister Letitia also needed a family, they adopted her as well.

Later came Tamara and Davontay and Michael and Jordan. Eugenie and Denny kept busy managing it all. Some of the children had special needs, so therapy, assessments, and doctors’ visits kept them busy. She and Denny were a team.

Then, in 2002, Eugenie began seeing some things that troubled her.

“I noticed Denny being a little forgetful,” Eugenie says. “Then a lot forgetful.”

He was getting frustrated, Eugenie says, but he didn’t know what was happening. Eugenie, however, was afraid she did know.

Her fears were confirmed when at only 56, Denny was diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

But that diagnosis didn’t stop the family from welcoming other children. They got a phone call asking if they could take an emergency placement of a baby named Ellen.

At that point, Denny could no longer care for the children by himself, but he was still able to change diapers and give bottles. Ellen entered the Eaborn family as a baby and her adoption was finalized when she was 5. She was followed by Zoe and then Ellen’s half sister, Venus, who ended up being the 10th and last adopted child in the family. Lest anyone forget, the license plate on their van says, “Adopt10!”

The family moved to Salisbury last year to be closer to Nina and her family.

Eugenie marvels that they’ve been able to manage everything associated with such a complicated family situation. “We’ve had a village helping us,” she says.

Fatherhood does not end with a diagnosis

Through it all, Denny has been the best stepfather and father he could be, to all the children, Eugenie says.

When Eugenie’s oldest daughter, Nina, got married nine years ago, she asked Denny to walk her down the aisle. At that point, he was starting to lose his memory for names, but Nina didn’t mind.

“Even if he doesn’t remember my name, he knows who I am,” she says.

Most of the children are grown and out of the home now, but Ellen, Zoe and Venus still live with Eugenie and Denny in Salisbury. The children now help take care of Denny, who spends five days a week at Trinity Living Center, a United Way agency run by Lutheran Services Carolinas that provides adult day services. It bothered Eugenie at first that the children needed to help with Denny, but she’s come to believe that sharing in Denny’s care has been a good thing for everyone.

“I’m still a daddy’s girl,” says Ellen, who is in middle school. “I feel like I’m giving back to my dad. He took care of me when I was little and now I can take care of him.”

Denny often forgets the names of Venus and Zoe because he hasn’t known them as long as he has Ellen. Venus gets so excited when he remembers her name that she’ll run to tell her mother.

“They have learned a lot,” Eugenie says. “I am so proud of them.” As a family, she says they’ve learned to take things one day at a time.

Even though Denny isn’t the same dad he used to be, in an emotional sense he’s still very much the father they have known and loved.

These days, simple hand-holding replaces fatherly advice or long conversations. When Denny gets excited about completing a word search puzzle, his daughters celebrate with him.

Nina’s 4-year-old son, Chase, loves his “Pop Pop.”

“Denny and Chase will play cars for, literally, hours,” Nina says. “They will play until you tell them they have to stop. It’s sweet. And Denny will color with Chase and the girls. Those are the things he’s able to do right now.”

Eugenie has created a memory book for Denny, with photos of him, his family, and important moments from his life, including his stint in the Coast Guard. He loves to pore through it and be reminded of the fullness and richness of his life.

Denny stays positive. “Whenever you ask him how he is, he always says, ‘I’m wonderful; never better,” Nina says.

“Just because you have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, life doesn’t end if you don’t let it end,” Eugenie says. “I was very determined that Denny would always be respected as the father. He still is Dad, and he deserves that respect. I am very clear about that.”

Eugenie says the family celebrates Father’s Day like a birthday: “We’re silly when he opens up his gifts: ‘It’s a boat! It’s an elephant!’ we’ll say. And he’s just as excited when he sees it’s a pair of socks.”

“A lot of people would just say, don’t bother, he’s not going to remember, but it’s still important to us,” Nina says. “It’s important to get together and celebrate him.”

Zoe says her dad always wants to be helpful and nice. “He tries to be there for us,” she says.

“He’s still my hero,” Ellen says. “And I know that some part of him is still looking out for me.”

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