Oh, my beloved Papa

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.

Ahem

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 please!
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.

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Road trip- a father’s day tribute

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Since I’m sitting around a lot these days, and since tomorrow is father’s day, I thought I would post another tale from my youth- a slightly lengthy one that encapsulates best many of the things I love about my father. It really should be written down, even though it’s hard to imagine any of us who were part of the story could ever forget it. It’s the story of our last family road trip, before the six of us left the nest.
My oldest sister had already graduated from high school and spent some time abroad. I had just graduated as well, and was preparing for my own sojourn overseas. Dad realized that home life with his all of his daughters was fast coming to a close. So, being a lover of road trips, and always looking for an excuse to head south to his homeland in sunny southern California, he began planning the grand finale of family road trips. This one would not only head south, but also east through the dessert towards Colorado and back home again to Washington state.
We had often borrowed cars for trips to California, since we rarely had a family vehicle we could depend on. But this time, dad splurged. We bought a new van. One that wouldn’t die on the side of the road, as had happened in some of our other memorable family outings. It was a shiny, deep burgundy color, with lots of space inside- a very dependable looking vehicle.

We left for our three week trek in July. Dad’s motto when vacationing has always been “No time for sleep!” So naturally he planned to leave in the evening and drive through the night, so as not to waste a single moment of daylight in driving. We girls were supposed to sleep through the night, but seeing as I never am able to sleep in cars, I spent the night gazing out the back window at the incredible stars high in the mountains as we crossed from Oregon into California. Even though there were now four other licensed drivers in the van, dad insisted on doing all the driving. But despite the loss of a night’s sleep, he made very good time, so that we were well past the border by the time the sun rose and we blearily looked around.

Our goal was to get to our destination in record time. I had made breakfast ahead of time so that we wouldn’t need to stop to eat- a couple of pans of homemade cinnamon rolls that we all munched happily as the sun rose higher. We were making such good time that we anticipated surprising our beloved cousins several hours ahead of schedule. Dad was in his most exuberant mood- full of nervous energy, jokes and old stories, and trying not to exceed the speed limit too much. The sunshine of CA always had this effect on him. It was infectious, and we in the backseats were soon hyperactive as well, laughing uproariously at the slightest joke and full of anticipation.
And then the funny smell began. It started out as an occasional whiff that we ignored for a while. As it grew stronger, one of my sisters piped up with a “Hey daddy, what’s that smell?”
It smelled a little like oil, or maybe like hot tires. We were driving through farmland, and dad thought that maybe it was some kind of new fertilizer they were using on the fields. This reassured us for awhile. But soon the hot tire smell began smelling like a burning tire. I looked out the back window and noticed a thin trail of smoke streaming behind us.

“Ummm, dad?” I began.

Then BANG!

The next few seconds are some that are etched on my memory as if in slow motion. The van launched itself a few feet off the ground, and came back down again with a thud. I watched, horrified, as flames spurted out behind us. I saw a semi bearing down on us, honking it’s horn loudly, as if to notify us that something might be wrong. And then thick black oil covered the entire back windshield. I whirled around to face the front, and there was dad, frantically trying to control our vehicle that was veering from side to side. I remember it being totally silent. Either we didn’t have time for screaming or I was just to shocked to hear it. It seemed an eternity before dad managed to pull the van to the side of the road, but as soon as he hit the brake, the volume seemed to come back up. I will never forget the look on his face or the tone of his voice as he shouted at us to get out of the car. It didn’t take us long.

Expecting the whole van to explode behind us in a fiery ball any second, we all pelted up the grass-covered hill that ran along the side of the freeway. When we had reached a safer distance, we turned to survey the scene. There were still flames burning away underneath the van, but this was still the dark ages, before we had a cell phone. There was no way to notify the fire department. Then I noticed, as I looked down the straight stretch of freeway behind us, a black patch of burnt grass in the distance, perhaps burned by a carelessly thrown cigarette. I saw us sitting in that long, tall, dry grass, while the flames from the van were being blown towards the hill. But before I really started to panic at the thought of the imminent grass fire, a cop pulled up. Dad ran down to talk to him, and he immediately called the fire department. There wasn’t much the cop could do for us, but I do remember his kind and helpful words to the seven females trembling on the side of the road.

“Hey. You ladies should watch out for rattle snakes up there.”

Just what we needed to hear.

Within moments, the first firetruck wailed up, then another. But by that time, the danger had passed. The last of the flames had gone out, the van was still standing and the excitement was over. Then came the tedium of waiting. We weren’t sure what to do next, other than keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. The firemen were bored too. To pass the time, I fetched the other pan of cinnamon rolls. We divvied them up with the firemen, who we noticed were casting hopeful looks in our direction. We couldn’t help some slightly hysterical giggling at the ludicrous situation we now found ourselves in, but seeing dad, pacing up and down the side of the freeway, wringing his hands and looking stressed, we kept quiet.

Eventually a tow truck arrived, and the firemen left. The problem now was how to transport all of us back to civilization since eight was too many to fit in the cab of the tow truck, and it was illegal to ride in a car that was being towed. In the end, the driver decided to flout the law, and told us all to get back in our poor burnt van. In we got, and burst into laughter again as the tow truck hauled us up and we drove to the nearest town at a slightly reclined level.

We spent the afternoon waiting in a small patch of grass outside a car rental place as dad haggled with the the car company to try and get us a replacement vehicle. At long last, he managed to find a big enough van for us, and arranged for our broken van to be towed back home. We transferred all of our things, and dad insisted on taking the wheel again. We all took a look at his haggard, sleep deprived face- the face of a man who had nearly lost his entire family that day. His hair was standing on end, his shoulders were in tight knots, his eyes had a slightly wild look. Mom put her foot down. We gently guided his protesting self to the passenger side of the van. One of us started massaging his neck, another reclined his seat for him, and he was asleep almost as soon as mom pulled back onto the highway.

We eventually made it to our destination, and by that time, dad had revived enough to tell our story with a laugh. For once in his life, there was no need to add any dramatic flourishes. He retold it again and again as we reunited at the beach with his family, met up with friends for a few luxurious days in Santa Cruz, passed through Las Vegas, and made our way to Lake Powell, Utah, where we spent a glorious weekend on a house boat with more relatives.
By the time we reached Colorado, and made our way up to visit our pastor and his family at their vacation home in the mountains, I could tell it was going to become the stuff of family legend. He had even given our ill-fated van a name- “the eight- slice toaster.”

It may not have ended up being the perfect trip he had planned, and the financial and legal hassle over the car that awaited us when we got home would take several months to sort out, but it was still one of the best times we ever had with dad. His love of life, of family, of adventure, his ability to see the humorous side of things, even his vacation motto “no time for sleep” which sometimes left us exhausted, are all things that endear him to us.
And, of course, his love of a good story. This one’s for you, dad.