This is my father. He was…quite a character. Every day of his life he was quite a character.
I can’t say that we had a close relationship growing up–I was “yes” and he was “no.” A victim of his upbringing, and yes, I use victim purposely, he was a challenging father. But then again, I was a challenging daughter. But I shouldn’t make excuses for him. It wasn’t me at all. It really was him. But that was a long time ago.
His pediatric practice kept him busy, so busy, in fact, that he nearly always forgot about social outings he’d agreed to. After a while, my mother made him initial wedding and party invitations to prove that she’d discussed them with him. It was mildly amusing to me, because it was standard operating procedure starting, maybe, in his 40s. Just the way things were.
When he retired from his practice at age 78, I have to admit I was shocked. He loved to work and lived to work. It gave his life meaning in a way nothing else did, including his family. He really was a good doctor and I figured he’d practice forever.
“I had to retire,” he told me, “because I began forgetting things.” Well, ok, that happens with age, right? It’s normal, isn’t it? Or is it?
I began to notice other anomalies. His driving was super-erratic. He and my mother had an accident while taking their annual road trip to Miami. Nothing serious, but they left Dad’s Olds for repair and rented a car to complete the trip. Again, normal aging, right? Or was it?
My mother covered for him for a very long time, but finally she expressed concern about his memory and then, made a doctor’s appointment for him. It sounds ridiculous to say I didn’t take her seriously, because I did. But not really. Does that make sense? My father was invincible. Obviously, nothing could be wrong with him. Right? He’d always been forgetful. I can’t remember if the appointment was with his longtime internist, a peer of his, whose skills were…questionable, I always thought, or if it was with the younger doctors that saw my mother through her illness with skill and compassion. I don’t remember the outcome of that appointment at all.
Because at just about that time, my mother’s health took a serious turn and she ended up in the hospital for most of 1999.
I came back to Rochester from my home and job in Tampa, Fla. to stay for a week or two every month so I could spend time with her. She used to say that every visit of mine was like a party; there was so little partying in her hospital room that I was glad to be of service. Sometimes, she lay in intensive care, barely conscious. I hung over her bedrail for hours, watching her, willing her to get well.
Then, a voice from the still body in the bed:
“Carol. Go home.” I had to laugh. She was sick of me. Or maybe I was scaring her. In any case, it was my mother, alright. I went home for the night.
Dad, modeling, Univ of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana undergrad.
Because I stayed with my father during those visits, I saw up close the severity of his memory issues. The things we thought were “dad being an asshole” were actually “dad having memory problems.” We kids made him an appointment with a neuro-psychiatrist for 10am on December 22, 1999.
My mother died at 5am that day.
We expected her passing. I had her medical proxy and although everyone knew how hard she’d tried to hold on to this life, it was ready to end. The doctors had asked me to sign a DNR as things got really bad and they believed she’d leave us very soon. Months before my father had told me he believed she’d be gone before Christmas and she was. Three days before. It was…eerie… that he knew.
And then, she was gone from this life.
Upon her death, my father was heartbroken. No one would say he’d treated her very well for most of their marriage, but relationships are complicated. I won’t pretend to understand. Well, I think I do understand but it’s too complicated for this post.
Maybe it wasn’t a good idea, but we went ahead with my father’s medical appointment a few hours later. In retrospect, perhaps we shouldn’t have. But we’d had to wait so long for that appointment with this top doc and I wanted to be there. So we kept the appointment. It’s not like things would be any different, either way. Mom would still be dead and he would still be memory-impaired. They ran him through a series of cognitive tests, examined him, and then:
I found this in a box I hadn’t opened in more than 10 years.
The fact is that he had had memory issues for a very long time at home. It’s a wonder he didn’t have them at his office earlier, but that part of it came later. I have to wonder if his forgetting social events my mother had discussed was the early warning sign of what was to come, even though he was still relatively young at the time. While he gave his history, my sister and I added color that often conflicted with his view of things. I was the person referenced above who saw him struggle with a map; it was on a visit to me and his problems with navigating were so out of character that I could hardly believe it.
This history probably minimized the issues he had been having, they were quite severe and he was expert at masking them, but the diagnosis was clear enough to the physician:
Probable dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.
The following morning, after we’d gotten up, my father asked me quietly, “Carol, did your mother die?”
“Yes, Dad. Yes, she did. She died yesterday morning.”
A Post-It note I found in my father’s things. It’s so endearing, I had to keep it.
My father was diagnosed on Dec. 22, 1999 and died in May of 2008. The neuro guy told us he would live about eight years and he was right. He spent most of that time in a memory care facility, where he declined quickly. Always proud of his physique and fitness, he gained a tremendous amount of weight. He cold-cocked some guy (that’s my dad!) and they put him on anti-psychotics that drained him of personality. He introduced me to his nurses as his son (my ex-husband didn’t think that was much of a mistake, either–“you’re more of a son to him than his son,” he told me) and later, Dad didn’t know me at all.
His pleading eyes on the day he died haunt me still. What was he trying to tell me?
I write about him a lot these days. I don’t write about the pain of seeing him turn into a stranger, although as my fingers pick at the keyboard now my eyes brim with tears. Yes, there was pain.
When you’re the kid who lives away, you’re not expected to feel like this. It’s as if others feel you have no right to it because you opted out of the hometown life long ago.
And yet he was my father, too. That had nothing to do with where I chose to live. He was my father, too.
The year she died my mother told me I’d been his favorite. Who knew? The thought still astonishes me. Later, I realized that the issues he had with me were probably a response to the ways I was like him: fiercely independent, among other things. And maybe even a little arrogant.
Now, 15 years past his diagnosis, I find myself with the memory of a senior citizen. I forget more often. What does it mean? I wonder. Do I have it? Will I get it? Should I be tested?
I can’t read books or movies about people with dementia. I just can’t. It strikes too close to home. I’ve seen it up close and personal and it is the saddest thing ever.
There ARE some things that we can do to help retrain our failing brains. My friend, Ruth Curran, suffered a traumatic brain injury after an accident and fought her way back like many others have to. Her blog contains puzzles and activities that are brain exercises. I try to take time to do some every week, to exercise those neurons that are a little sluggish when they ping these days. Words I lose far more frequently. Things I can’t remember.
Ruth is living proof that we can retrain our brains and I’m hoping activities like hers will stave off dementia. Not to mention my fears. I admire her tremendously. Her blog is HERE and she recently published a book which you can buy HERE. I highly recommend it.
Retraining the brain sounds like a good idea to me. My father, on the other hand, did almost everything right, all the things that are recommended today. He worked out two hours a day every day for decades. He ate salmon. He engaged his brain with his hobby, which was immunology. Not kidding. That was his hobby, the stuff he read for fun. And still, Alzheimers got him. So who knows. If it’s meant to be, will a few pushups a day make the difference? I doubt it.
I’m now part of an Alzheimer’s study. It was a little scary to sign up for it–do I really want to know? But at some point we have to find a way to stop this and if I can help in that way, well, I have to. My father would want me to. I do it for me, but really, I do it for him.
My parents subscribed to Reader’s Digest when I was growing up, and I remember the monthly feature called My Most Unforgettable Character. Although I’ve met many unforgettable people, there’s only one unforgettable character in my life and that was my father. For good, for bad, and even with his memory problems–and mine–he was unforgettable.