Dad, I appreciate every minute that you know you’re my Dad. It’s not something that I take for granted and it’s not something that I assume. And although certain things have changed as we travel the journey through Alzheimers together, we still share a soul to soul father-daughter connection, that does not need words to be understood.
As I was growing up, my father was the penultimate present dad. He was interested in my life, thoughts, and dreams. He loved me unconditionally, he was playful with me, and he advised me. He took his job as a father seriously and loved us so deeply that his feelings of parental love for my siblings and me seem to have been chiseled permanently into his being. He still lights up whenever we walk into the room. He speaks differently to us and tries to make us smile. There have been a couple of times lately that he has grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me square in the face, and said intently and urgently, “I love you. I really do. I need you to know that. I love you.” Wow. Is he having a moment of clarity? Whatever it is, the message is received and truly appreciated. Yes, I know. I love you too.
My father has always been a jokester and he still is. With his diminished vocabulary and made-up words, his verbal jokes make a lot less sense these days. But we laugh with him and celebrate the joy he gets from being silly. Occasionally he will come out with a zinger – something truly hilarious and on point, and that laughter is genuine and filled with gratitude and incredulity. He’s still a whiz at physical comedy. Sticking out his tongue sideways when we’re taking a picture, putting something funny on his head, pretending to fall asleep and snore loudly when someone is talking too long. Anything to get a laugh. He still loves music and will sit through concerts. A family joke has always been how Dad seemed to be an impressive pianist to others, but the only thing he actually could play was the first line of Für Elise. Today, if anyone is playing piano, he will still walk over to tickle the ivories with that same darn tune! If we are singing an oldie but a goodie, as he liked to refer to them, he will be right there with the doo wops in the chorus. I’ll even have fun with him by saying the first lines of some of the silly chants he taught us, and he’ll say the ending on cue. I scream, you scream, we all scream “for ice cream!”
I realized recently that there are ways I can have my old Dad back with me. We were sitting together, ‘playing’ a card sorting game. As he sorted the cards in various ways, he was in a gentle, teaching mode. He’s a numbers guy and he likes to count out loud how many there are in each row or column. “You see, here there are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 . And here there are 1, 2, 3, 4. If you move this one there, now there are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Okay, it’s your turn.” I closed my eyes and a memory of him sitting with me helping me with my math homework surfaced. The same soft, sing-song, patient voice. The same numbers. I was having my own Back to the Future moment and I held onto it. This was the Dad I have always known. There is an intangible essence of parent to child, and I was able to experience it fully if I could just isolate the moment.
A couple of months ago, I was at a crossroads in my life. I had a dilemma and I really needed some advice. It was exactly the type of advice I had always sought from my father. He had a balanced way of looking at situations, asking the right questions in a nonjudgmental way, and was able to guide me wisely. It was the first time that I realized that although my father is thankfully still very much in my life, that he is also completely out of reach in many ways. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before. It’s been at least 6 years since I remember being first concerned about his memory loss. But just a few weeks ago, the realization that he cannot help me hit me like a ton of bricks.
I couldn’t let it go. I desperately felt that I needed him to weigh in on my choices. I went over to my parents’ house. My mom was elsewhere in the house and I had a good stretch of time alone with my father, as we did puzzles together. I kept imagining asking him for the advice and then I would reject that notion. I was so curious, though. I dared myself again and again until finally I just blurted it out. I made sure no one else was around and then I whispered, “Dad, I need some advice. Can I ask you a question?” He was engrossed in his game and I realized how ridiculous I sounded, had anyone been listening. I really felt so stupid. But then something incredible happened. Dad silently put down his puzzle piece, put his hands in his lap, sat up straight, looked me in the eye, and gave me his full attention. I was shocked. I quickly shared the situation and then I stammered out my question in the form of a choice. Do you think I should do _____ or _____? He said, “The second one.” And because word retrieval is not his strength, that was incredible to me. I couldn’t believe that he was actually responding so appropriately, so I pressed a little more.
I’ll admit that I was leading the witness with the way I asked my questions, but I did get a response. “Yes! You should. This will happen and you’ll do it and then that will happen and it will be great.” I recognized that this was very much like asking Zoltar for advice at the amusement park. It even reminded me of the Peter Sellers movie Being There, when people took simple things the gardener said as profound wisdom. I assume that Dad didn’t process my questions as he once would have, but he understood that I was earnestly asking him something and I needed him to answer me. And, true to the amazingly supportive Dad he’s been all my life, he still built me up and encouraged me. I was overcome with emotion and gratitude that he is still my Dad. Yes, I have to work harder to decipher the advice and what exactly he means by the words this and that. But perhaps that’s what it’s all about. Realizing that I know what the right decision is for myself and whatever interpretation I put into his comments, is the one I am meant to hear.
On this Father’s Day, I appreciate the Dad you were to me and I appreciate the Dad you still are for me. You gave me a wonderful gift last week as you were sitting with Mom by the pool. I came out of the pool, walked toward you, and you said with a big smile, “Here comes Diana!” I can’t remember the last time you spontaneously said my name. In that moment it was as if you forgot you have memory loss. Thank you for making sure that I know how loved I am and how important I am to you. Even when you forget certain things, you always remember that you’re my Dad.