Each year around this time, I begin forcing myself to sit quietly and remember. Every single year I remember less. I sometimes forget the smallest of details, so I close my eyes in a desperate experimental wing and a prayer to hold onto the memories of him that are not saturated with urine soaked, agitated confusion. It is like holding up the charred remains of a picture that found its way into the flames of a fire before violently being stomped out, what I am left with are blurry visions of maybes and more questions than answers. Yet, there are beautiful details that somehow keep me glued together when I think of my Dad before the heartbreak of Alzheimer’s came knocking ever so gently on our door all those years ago.
My dad died when I was 29 at the age of 87, the anniversary of his death was on Monday. Through the years I have had several people tell me I should be grateful I had him that long, but what they fail to realize is that I lost him long, long before he died. I have two choices right now, I can write this blog post with honesty in hopes that like so many other times letting go of the hard stuff by unleashing the words that string together the cuffs that keep me chained, or I can go on a sloppy self imposed war with an arsenal of a dozen donuts in a darkened corner of remembering. When thoughts of the second option cross my mind they are dismissed almost immediately, perhaps a sign of strength or rather a sign of fear knowing it’s possible not to make it out of that darkness, that gravity in reverse could pull me down to the very bottom. I choose to simply write.
I remember with such detail the fights, raising my voice in an attempt to change the clouded confusion I saw over and over in his watery grey eyes. I smell the pungent stench in the small room of the nursing home, and I remember in vivid detail transporting myself somewhere else as I changed him while we both sat drowning in a pool of his indignity that had spread out before us. The repetition, over and over and over the same questions and the same lies I told to him every single time he would ask me with such hope if he could come home. He never did.
There is a difference in knowing the stories of your past and actually remembering the stories of your past. Sometimes I think I don’t remember at all, but the stories have been told to me so many times that I have signed on the dotted line to make them my own. Just when I think I don’t remember a flash of him that is so real and so detailed drops in unannounced like an old friend who grabs me for a fast and furious walk down memory lane. His laugh echos straight through me and I feel his strong calloused hand take mine and we head home from my elementary school together, or I see the pride wash over his face when the training wheels came off my bike for the last time and he claps feverishly as I try to stay on the sidewalk and off of the neighbors lawn. He was such a good man, a kind, gentle and generous man with his talents, his friendship and his laughter, it was so infectious. Sometimes it is agonizing to remember, I feel like my chest will simply cave from the pain of missing him so much and for all the words and actions I can never take back.
He remembered almost nothing in the end, and there is so much I simply can’t forget. Oh how I loved him, and yet I understood very little about the disease that took his mind and dignity, I hated what he had become feeling powerless in my desperation to make it better. In the last years of his life, while he waited patiently I finally figured it out. I let go of my own anger and resentment I had during my teens, leaving the pity party I had thrown for myself and somehow found the compassion and unconditional love for him which he had shown me my whole life. Each Sunday afternoon we would eat ice cream (his favorite) then I would roll him into the bathroom and give him a shave with warm water and way too much shaving cream. We laughed and talked about baseball, I would gently touch his face and remember that beyond the wrinkles and his tender worn skin was the man who could not have loved me more, the man who was so brave to become a father at 56, the man who I can now say to you with so much pride was my Dad. In the end I held him as he passed on, and there is no doubt in my mind he knew the enormous love that surrounded him during those final moments, for that I am forever grateful.
“i’m kneeling down with broken prayers
hearts and bones from days of youth
restless with an angel’s wing
i dig a grave to bury you
no feet to fall
you need no ground
allowed to glide right through the sun
released from circles guarded tight
now we all are chosen ones
secure yourself to heaven
hold on tight, the night has come
fasten up your earthly burdens
you have just begun” A. Ray.