On Christmas morning I pulled up to the curb at my father’s house knowing well what I was about to face. Over the past decade our family has watched our father slowly slipping away. He suffers from what doctors call dementia. I, on the other hand, am confident it is Alzheimer’s disease.
My dad shuffled through the kitchen and dining area using a walker, a home health care nurse following closely behind. He looked thinner and his posture was deteriorating, not from age, but from the long-term effects of living with one foot. For the past 50 years my father has been walking with a limp from the prosthesis which, over time, effects your equilibrium, which effects your spine, which effects your muscles, which effects your balance, which effects your posture.
As he reached the living room I watched as the nurse balled the back of his pants at the waistline while he backed down into his favorite chair. His weight loss made it appear as if he was wearing another man’s clothes a man twice his size. I remember taking a deep breath and swallowing. It felt like I was choking down an entire grapefruit.
I moved around the chair to face my father and dropped to one knee in front of him. He looked uncomfortable having this younger man crowding his personal space.
Hi, Dad. I am John, your son.
Oh, he said.
Do you remember me?
Yes, sure, he replied unsure of himself and me.
I tried to make small talk. How are you? How are you feeling? His answers were short and distant. Good. Thanks. OK.
I wouldn’t, couldn’t, take my eyes off him. I was praying inward, hoping outward, he would look at me and something, anything, would shake his memory.
He never did look me in the eye. My father, who always shared his feelings with me when I was a boy, no longer could muster the confidence to say he loved me. How could he? He wasn’t looking at his son John, but a stranger, an adult man, who was telling him he loved him and putting his hand on his leg and reaching for his hand. If anything, I am certain I made him feel uncomfortable.
I finally looked up at my wife, Sharon, who was standing just a few feet away. Tears were rolling down her face. I tried again to reach into the darkness, past the cruel disease dominating my father’s memory.
Do you remember Sharon? Do you remember coming to our wedding in Charleston?
Yes, sure, he said, looking at her and smiling.
We knew he was just being kind. But, then again, that’s one thing the disease couldn’t take from him.
We grew up in a small railroad town of Mechanicville, some 30 minutes outside of Albany, New York. My father worked his entire adult life as a switch operator in local rail yard, directing trains coming and going from the station. One night in the dead of winter his life changed. The tower he worked from was located in the middle of the railroad yard and the only way to get to it was to walk over the train tracks and sometimes between the box cars. That required climbing up between two connected box cars and over.
As my dad lifted himself up between the cars he slipped and fell back, his right leg landing across the steel track. At that moment the 70-ton box car started to move. The wheel rolled over his leg, crushing his foot and ankle. I cannot begin to imagine the feeling. My father was rushed to the hospital and his foot was amputated just above the ankle. He eventually recovered and returned to work with a prosthesis that he wears to this day.
As a family, the injury became part of our normal. In fact, during the summer, when my father would take us fishing on Saratoga Lake he would let us drive the small boat around the lake. As we looked for fishing spots we would ask, Which way Dad? He would lift his stub up and point in the direction we should go. Everyone laughed.
Despite the setback, my father remained as tough as nails.
A naive hitchhiker found that out the hard way one summer night. My dad was driving through the South on a trip when he spotted a young man on the side of the road, thumb out, trying to bum a ride. My father pulled over and asked where he was going. When the man said he would be happy to ride as far South as possible, my father agreed to give him a lift.
After driving for a while, I can only assume the hitcher noticed my father driving with one foot and a prosthesis lying parallel to the seat under my dad’s driving leg. That’s how he always traveled. I suppose the man hatched a plan in his head. I will get this guy to pull over, act like I am getting out, then beat him up and take his money and car.
The hitchhiker waited until nightfall and no other traffic was in sight to tell my father he was ready to get out. My dad pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped. The hitchhiker leaned to his right as if he were about to open the car door then swung his body back into my father, crushing him in the temple with his elbow. My father’s head slammed into the driver side window, temporarily rendering him unconscious.
As the hitchhiker started digging through my father’s pockets for money my dad sat still, clearing his head. Then, he clutched his left fist and with every ounce of energy he wheeled it across his body, driving the man into the driver’s side door. My father then leaned over the hitchhiker, opened the door, lifted his good left leg across the seat and shoved the man out the door. My dad pulled the passenger car door closed and began to drive away. Furious, he stopped, put the car in park and put on his prosthesis. He got out of the car and limped the 50 feet or so back to the man, who was moaning and trying to get on his feet. My father grabbed him by the shirt and socked him across the face until his frustration and anger subsided. He then walked back to his car and drove off.
Don’t get me wrong, my dad wasn’t some maniac with a short fuse. In fact, just the opposite. Even during the time my parents were going through a divorce, my father always hugged me and kissed me and told me he loved me. He would sing goofy songs to me and make me laugh. As a boy, on the small town streets of Mechanicville he would let me sit on his lap and steer the car. After my parents divorced my father would take me to Little League games on weekends. On Sundays he would take me to the local newsstands and buy me baseball cards and sports magazines.
My dad was great with his hands. After lightning struck a tree near his driveway, my father sawed off a big hunk of the base and whittled it down into a small statue of Lee Mazzilli, my favorite Met player, complete with pinstripes. He gave it to me as a Christmas gift.
Life has left me clinging to a handful of father-son memories like the times my father took me to Cooperstown, New York to visit the Hall of Fame, my first baseball game at Shea Stadium where I was lucky enough to see Willie Mays play, taking the train to Montreal and Jarry Park to see a doubleheader between the Mets and Expos, a Little League banquet and the chance to meet Ed Kranepool and Bud Harrelson and countless summer afternoons on the boat fishing in Saratoga Lake.
Then, one day, it just happens. There is no flashing red light, no warning shot. It starts with something simple. Maybe you forget where you set your keys down or forget the day of the week. No big deal, it happens to everyone. But slowly dementia starts picking off your memories one-by-one. Before you know it, you lose your childhood. Then your adulthood, last week and last hour. All the while, your family stands on the sidelines watching, helplessly.
On December 30 my father celebrated his 90th birthday. I wish he could have been there to celebrate a life well lived. To him, I guess, it was just another day or a long, single stream of subconsciousness on which days and nights, weeks and months, seasons, holidays and special events are one. No day is significant from the one before.
Dementia, and Alzheimer’s, are cruel; they chip away at your mind and body. Nancy Reagan once described her husband’s illness as the long, slow goodbye. I can now relate to her grief and sadness. I, too, am experiencing that long, slow goodbye and what I’ve learned is this: The older we get the more time we spend looking for things we’ve lost. In this case, priceless memories that well never find.
I miss you Dad.