My father died eleven years ago, shortly before his seventy-sixth birthday. His death was caused by Alzheimer’s, as was his mother’s.
If you’re fortunate enough not to have witnessed the deterioration of an Alzheimer’s patient, you’re lucky. The disease robs the soul of your loved one – stealing it in tiny increments and leaving only a shell of the person you knew.
As the disease progressed, I would have sworn sometimes that I could see when Dad’s syanpses received the brain’s electrical charges. For a moment, he’d be there, and then that spark was snuffed out like the flame of a candle. As time passed, those moments grew fewer and fewer. Eventually there were no more.
During his final illness, I visited him in the hospital, though I don’t think he knew I was there. Bag of yarn at my side and crochet hook in hand, I’d sit next to his bed and listen to him breathe. It actually felt kind of peaceful, until I began to notice the pause between each deep slow breath and each long exhale. This was my father’s deathbed, I realized, and I was on deathwatch.
It was late when my stepmother called to tell me he was gone. All I could think was, At least wherever he is now, he’s all there.
I’ve been thinking about him because tomorrow would have been his eighty-seventh birthday. My daughter barely remembers him, though thankfully he was able to enjoy her early years. My own memories are beginning to fade, but here are a few that strike me as important in understanding the man he was.
He spent untold hours trying to teach me how to hit a softball, an endeavor that was doomed from the start. “Watch the ball, Kimmie,” he’d say before pitching the large white ball directly at the bat. I swear, if I’d just stood still, the ball would have hit the bat, but I never could. I finally gave up, but he never did.
Dad had a quirky sense of humor, but also a bit of a temper. When one of us kids did something wrong, we were never quite sure which would make an appearance. I recall once flipping my shoe into the air in a spurt of joie de vivre. To my horror, it flew through the window of our side door, leaving me to wait in terror for my father to get home so I could confess.
“Oh,” he said, “you were in a good mood so you kicked off your shoe and it went through the window?”
“Ye-es,” I stammered, then watched in amazement as his mouth quirked up, and he began to laugh.
Dad grew up in West Virginia, and I remember him telling me that their house burned down when he was young, leaving his family with only a blanket. However, though they were poor, Grandma was educated enough to have been a schoolteacher before she married. Whether she pushed him or whether he was really that smart, I don’t know, but Dad skipped two grades, landing in high school at the age of twelve.
A couple years later, he dropped out and joined the Navy, serving on a troop carrier in the South Pacific during World War II. He never spoke about the war, though he once told me he was glad they dropped the bomb because he would have been in the first wave in Japan. According to him, that would have meant certain death.
He ended up there anyway after the surrender, and in the Philippines and China too. Just seventeen, he was so skinny that we used his uniform as a Halloween costume when we were kids. (It’s now in the small museum at the Veteran’s Home in Sandusky, where he spent his last years.)
After the war, he returned home, not to West Virginia, but to Massillon, Ohio, where my grandparents had moved. He was graduated from Massillon Washington High School in 1947, then headed back to West Virginia for a quick three-year Bachelor’s Degree, courtesy of the GI bill at Glenville State College.
Dad drank a lot in college, once finishing a six-pack and dumping the bottles outside someone else’s window so he wouldn’t get in trouble. The window turned out to belong to one of the college football players who was then either expelled or kicked off the team.
When Dad told me this story, I asked if he ever admitted they were his beer bottles. He looked at me as if I were nuts and asked, “Are you kidding? The guy would have killed me!”
My father was opinionated, a trait I unfortunately inherited. In many ways, his point of view was traditional. Mine wasn’t, which meant we disagreed a lot. But we always got along, maybe because I never lied to him. Even when I knew he wasn’t going to like what I had to say, I said it anyway, and he respected that.
This kind of standing up for myself was a skill that didn’t come naturally. I learned it from my father, not because he encouraged me to do it, but because if I hadn’t, I’d have ended up living the life he chose for me, rather than my own.
One lesson I didn’t learn, at least until recently, was to understand that just because you are capable of doing something – say taking a certain career path or advancement – didn’t mean you should do it. Dad told me a long time ago that he’d been offered several promotions, which he refused because he was happy where he was.
Dad was not a perfect man, nor was he a perfect father. In truth, I’m not sure there such people exist. However, he was a good man and a loving father, and my siblings and I were blessed to have had him.