About a month ago, if you remember, I went out west to visit my folks (who, by the way, have been married for forty years today!) and I went to check on my dad who is battling Alzheimers. I have been contemplating writing a blog post about that trip ever since I got back but it’s mostly a painful topic to write about and of course a rather personal one so I have put it off. But seeing as today is father’s day, I’d like to say a little something in his honor.
I went on that trip with dread in my heart, fearing that when I got there, we would have reached the point when he would no longer know me- that I would have to try to explain to my own father who I was. But as I walked cautiously into the house, it was instantly clear that he recognized me and there was even surprise and excitement on his face as he tried to figure out what was going on. He couldn’t quite remember my name, nor that a hug might be an appropriate form of greeting, but I took care of that for him.
It was a short visit- and an emotional one. He may have recognized me, but there was so much ground that he had lost since the last time I saw him. I had been warned, of course, but I wasn’t quite prepared to see my daddy unable to speak, unable to dress himself, to follow a game of baseball. I hated seeing him struggle to feed himself or even stumble over basic tasks like sitting himself down in a chair. And then once in that chair, it was painful to watch him sit hour upon hour with his hands on his knees, gazing into nothingness. Occasionally he would wake up to share a thought, but then, being unable to express himself clearly, would lapse into silence again. I knew he was sick, I had watched him declining from afar, but the last year and a half had taken a lot from him.
And yet, in spite of all the changes, dad was still dad. When I got there, the first thing I noticed was his ridiculously sun-tanned face- so brown and bronzed as to be almost orange. Dad the California boy has always been addicted to the sun, and clearly he hadn’t forgotten his love of sitting out in it, although perhaps he had forgotten a little bit how to go inside occassionally.
He also still loves a party and apparently my arrival meant a party, or at least a change from the normal. Everyone kept commenting on how perky and engaged he seemed to be all of a sudden, which made me a little sad since to me he seemed so distant and changed. But the last night I was there, his real old party spirit emerged. All of his children who could be there were there, mom pulled out all his old favorite music and he lit up from the inside out. There is a childlike, uninhibited quality to dad now which is actually quite endearing, once you can get past the fact that it is you father who is slowly reverting to infancy. He just stood there in the middle of the room managing to remember, at least in part, the lyrics to all his old faves- Stevie Wonder, Edgar Winter, Chicago- he was in a dancing mood that night too, trying to find the rhythm he used to have and even attempting to waltz me around the room a couple of times, laughing like a school boy. It made for some pretty awkward dancing, but also some pretty sweet memories.
And dad is still funny. That whole last night, he kept trying to remember funny stories and anecdotes and was even sharp enough for us to play a guessing game with him. Something would trigger a memory and he would ask,
“Do you remember?” and then were off with the twenty questions, trying to figure the memory out for him. More often than not, we would fail, but he has gotten to the point where he is less and less frustrated by his inability to communicate. He knew that the memory was funny, whether we pinpointed it or not, and he would laugh anyway. Dad really was a funny man and as I’ve been thinking about him this week, I did some of my own remembering. This is a story from my college days that no doubt was prompted by the endless remodeling projects in my life.
I think it was after my freshman year. I was twenty years old and had come home for the summer, bringing my boyfriend with me to stay all three months- that Frenchman that my family still didn’t know too well but who was hinting around at maybe marrying me some day. But that’s another story.
My mom and dad had recently decided to renovate the upstairs bathroom and I mean a complete overhaul. I can’t remember all the details- I’m pretty sure my uncle started the job and my brother in law was helping as well, but Steve (perhaps wanting to impress his girlfriend’s parents, who can say?) offered to jump in and do a lot of the work- for free. My parents agreed, and so the work progressed after a fashion. But predictably, it didn’t progress quite as quickly as they might have hoped.
The whole situation made me rather nervous because I felt like an important part of my life might be hanging in the balance over this bathroom remodel. I felt like it needed to be a success, if you know what I mean.
There were other things going on that summer, of course. Both Steve and I were music majors, as well as another hometown friend and I can’t remember exactly why- no doubt prompted by the noble desire to share with our loved ones all the amazing things we had learned that year in college, but we three decided to give a big recital at our home church.
It was a mixed bag as far as recitals go- a violin sonata here, an organ fugue there and as for me, I pulled out the big guns. I sang some Puccinni. I was new to being a soprano- all my life I had only sung alto, or even tenor, so I kinda wanted to surprise my friends and relations with my new found upper range. But I wasn’t too cocky yet so I chose O Mio Babbino Caro, which sounds impressive but really only soars to an A flat. High Cs were (and still are) quite out of my league.
We printed out a nice program and I included a translation for my various songs and arias that weren’t in English, including O Mio Babinno. I chose the song for the aforementioned reason and because it is popular and beautiful. I didn’t really pay attention to the text at all, but this overly dramatic Italian song goes something like this-
Oh my beloved papa,
I love him! I love him!
I want to go to Porta Rossa
To buy my wedding ring.
Oh yes, I truly love him
and if you still say no,
I’ll go to the Ponte Vecchio
and throw myself into the river Arno!
I am anguished and tormented
So much so I want to die.
Papa have pity!
I don’t really remember how well the recital went- that was a long time ago, but I do remember after the concert, dad had gotten me some flowers and gave me a big hug. I could tell he had gotten a little teary-eyed during the event (no unusal occurence, daddy always was a big softie) but behind the tears he also had an amused twinkle in his eye as he handed me his crumpled program and walked away.
Under the words to Puccinni he had written,
“Good grief honey. Enough, already. No need to jump in any rivers- I guess you can marry him. But can he at least finish my bathroom first?”
That was my dad then. And that is who he still is now, underneath all the sickness and forgetfulness, frustration and confusion. He is an unforgettable personality that might be fading a little now, but will carry right on over into eternity and there be renewed. Perfectly happy, perfectly funny, perfectly a joy to be around.
I can’t wait for that day.