He Was My Father

I said farewell to my father today. I kept looking for him to be sitting next to us, but he wasn’t there. My mother asked me to write a eulogy for him, and these are the words I said.

 

Photo by Steve Kramer

Photo by Steve Kramer

He was my father.

 

He shared his love of reading with me. He said that, as a child, he always loved to read, and he carried that with him throughout his life. I follow in his footsteps.

 

He was the person I went to when I doubted my own words; we’d argue over the use of commas.

 

He was the only one who voluntarily read my dissertation. I’m not sure what he thought, except he told me he needed a dictionary in parts.

 

He was the person I’d call when I applied for jobs and was unsure what to say. He made me believe that anything was possible.

 

He came to my rescue when I needed help with Sarah, whose toddler days sometimes meant I couldn’t always get my work done. Nathan had to be away for some reason, and I had a big interview to prepare for, so he came and stayed for a couple of weeks, to play with his granddaughter and even take her to the beach for the first time.

 

He printed out images of Snoopy on a dot matrix printer and handed out punch cards with messages on them as he wowed my elementary school classmates with a room full of computer technology.

 

He charmed my friends whenever they met him.

 

He told awful jokes that I’m now passing down to Sarah.

 

He greeted every spring with this memorable poem, “Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the birdies is, the birds is on the wing, no, the wings is on the birds.”

 

He mastered the art of telling the Passover story as quickly as possible so we could get to the food, and of giving me hints (without anyone knowing) which allowed me to find the Afikomen before the big kids.

 

His snore scared away the bears, but his joy on one particular canoe trip made the adventure even greater.

 

He made connections with people in Japan faster than most Americans who lived there.

 

He led the way on every journey we took. He loved to walk and we had to scramble to keep up.

 

He was my personal GPS system, even though I believe he and I have a completely different understanding of the term “short cut.”

 

He jumped over my wedding dress when my parents walked me down the aisle.

 

He always said that, when he was young he “walked to school barefoot in the snow uphill both ways.”

 

His favorite childhood story involved a skunk, a dog, tomato juice, and the missing seat in his pants.

 

He was the silliest looking samurai ever.

 

I learned early on never to pull his finger, and that beans were a musical fruit.

 

He played endless games with his only grandchild, who has these words to say:

 

I MISS YOU PAPA

I loved the way you laughed.

I loved the way you played games with me.

I loved that you watched me when I was a baby.

I wish I was brave enough to go to your funeral.

I miss you SO much Papa and I love you.

Rest in Peace! Sarah

 

 

He was taken far too soon, by a disease that deprived us of his wit, wisdom and his voice. Two years ago, Nathan, Sarah, and I tried to capture his memories using techniques from StoryCorps. From that interview I learned how much he loved my mother, how much he had hoped to spend his retirement traveling with her, and these words from his mouth

“I had a great life.”

 

I will miss you forever, Dad.

 

 

Baruch Dayan Ha’emet.

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Memory

What is memory? What do we remember? What makes something stand out in our mind so that we hold onto it in some format to come out years later in a conversation or on the page?

Yesterday Kathy wrote about her concerns that her memories are not specific enough for her memoirs. I argued that nobody’s memory is that precise, and that I find memoirs written with immense detail somewhat distracting because nobody can really remember every detail of his/her life, unless he/she took precise records on a daily basis.

We also all remember things differently. Even moments we spent together, when filtered through time, space, and the vagaries of personality will come out differently depending on the speaker. Every event can be interpreted with multiple truths like a never-ending production of Rashomon.

Yet, despite the variations in memory, certain things stick out. Tonight, as we took Sarah on her second round of Trick-or-Treating for what I am calling Halloween 2011, And Event that Never Ends she started complaining that her toe hurt.

The fastest runner gets the candy first

“Do you want to go back?”

“No! But it hurts.”

“Would you like me to cut it off at the neck? That will stop the pain.”

My brother, who was with us in his Woodstock costume commented on my choice of words as another parent who I just met said, “I haven’t heard that in a long time.”

“I am my father’s daughter,” I answered.

A few minutes ago, as I was trying to watch a movie and Jasper decided he needed some affection I said, “Jasper, you are a better door than a window, even though you are a pain.”

Oh yeah, that's the spot.

Steve, who is spending the night, said, “I haven’t heard that in a long time.”

“I am my father’s daughter,” I said again.

What does this have to do with memory, you ask.

It has everything to do with the memory of who my Dad used to be. I have incorporated many of his sayings into my life, and Sarah says some of them. These are phrases that I would hear repeatedly from my Dad once upon a time a long time ago. Because, you see, my Dad is still with us physically but each day moves further away from us into the world of memory, while simultaneously unable to remember anything.

Now, usually, a typical conversation with him involves his asking how old Sarah is and what grade she is in about five times in a row.

I answer each time, because I know he really cannot remember.

Today we learned that one of Dad’s oldest friends passed away. I do not know how he took the news, as I haven’t talked to Mom yet to find out. Would the news of a friends passing push him back into memories of younger days, when age and illness hadn’t entered the picture? Or would he simply forget soon after hearing the news, content in a moment not embedded in his memory?

In Colorado.

Despite the fact that both my parents are still in my life, I struggle to remember specific moments in my childhood. It is not that I had anything majorly traumatic; I just cannot remember a lot. Occasional snippets come into my mind, like a movie jumping from scene to scene with poor editing:

  • Me presenting my mother with a homemade Mother’s Day present that involved a real branch and paper flowers.
  • Me running into the house after a bad day, running up to my room and hiding from my mother and trying to ignore my mother’s knocks as she asked me what was wrong.
  • My parents sitting near each other on the couch and my father reaching over and giving my mother a gentle touch, unaware that I was watching. I believe this was my first awareness (as a pre-teen) that my parents were intimate.
  • My father’s recitation every year in early spring of the following snippet of classic poetry: “Spring has sprung, the grass has ris, I wonder where the birdies is? The birds is on the wing, no the wings is on the birds.”
  • The one and only conversation I ever remember having about sex with a parent, when my mother was driving me back to college one day (and this doesn’t even count as a childhood memory)
  • My mom frosting a chocolate cake for someone’s birthday.

This list of tiny moments of memory could go on forever, but I struggle to remember anything substantial. What memories of my life will I return too if I succumb to this awful disease? What memories of life will I leave Sarah with as she moves on into her own life?

Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and rediscover the moments of childhood that mean the most. I wish I did not have to rely on memories that are either faint or misremembered.

I wish I had kept better records of my own life and the lives of my family, but all I have now are remnants and habits that come from sources that I barely remember. As I search for more detailed memories, I realized that memories live within me. In the phrases I use to speak to my daughter, in the foods I cook at special times of year (recipes from my mother). Memories don’t always come back with a full picture, but they can appear in the smell of baked apple pie.

What happens when there is nothing left, not even memories?

This morning I woke with this song in my head (although I struggled to figure out what it was–thank goodness “There’s an APP for that” and that my brother had it). In some ways I think it is perfect because it reflects the challenges that often come when trying to communicate through the inconsistencies of memories.

Home . . . Sick

Mom, Dad and Sarah before it all changed.

I’ve been struggling about what to write this morning.

Usually the first thing I do in the morning is start my daily post.  But, this morning was different for a few reasons.:

  • I had to drag my carcass out of bed in order to drive my husband in to get a school van at 6am–why then? I don’t know.
  • The inevitable post-show blues hit, right in the middle of the show yesterday. Causing me to miss my curtain call! I didn’t know they were going to give me flowers at the end of the show. I thought they hated me by this point. Anyway, the post-show blues are often followed by some kind of physical thing, and this was no exception. I think it works something like this:

Germ 1: “Ooh, we haven’t been able to get to this one in a long time! She’s been so stressed, that we couldn’t even squeeze in. I want to get her bad!

Germ 2: I know. She is like a crazy person. And whenever she’s crazy those white dudes never let us in. It stinks.

Brain Chemicals: She finished. Now let’s make her feel sad because its fun.

Germ 1: Oh! The brain chemicals are out and she’s loosening up! Now is our chance! Let’s get her!

Germ 2: ATTACK!!!

And so, I am home sick, today.

But I still was stuck for anything to write about, so I visited some of my favorite blogs instead, in the hopes that I might get inspired. I read this sad and beautiful post by CM Smith called “Why?” CM and I are going through some similar experiences right now as we lose our fathers to the silences of Alzheimer’s. I haven’t written much about it, because I feel guilty in many ways. Living so far away from my family, I’m not there to witness the daily struggles or to offer help and support. I rarely talk to Dad on the phone, and Mom doesn’t really like to talk on the phone either. In many ways, this disease has widened the communication gap between my family and myself, and I don’t know how to bridge that gap. So, I simply avoid thinking about it–but it is always there. And my sadness about my dad seeps into my thoughts often.

So now, I’m home sick and I’m homesick.

But, reading CM’s post lead me this post about aging by NR Hatch, called “An Age Old Question . . . Old Age”.  She writes this post with a touch of humor, because all of us face the dreaded factor of joints creaking, gravity taking over, vision worsening, hearing fading. Face it, even the little babies are doomed to become decrepit old folks. NR’s humorous take on the battle with her parents to try to get them to move into a smaller and more functional situation reflects recent discussions with my own mother who refuses to even consider moving out of her home. I guess I understand, homes signify freedom and memories, but at what point do we say, okay, its time to let go? I wish both my parents could find freedom in old age, by holding onto memory rather than things. But memory is being slowly stripped from my dad, so my mother clings more to the things.

So, I guess I’m lucky in a way. Yes, I’m home sick, and I can be homesick, but reflecting on age and emotion and illness has led me to an important conclusion. I’ve moved a lot. I’ve said hello and goodbye to many wonderful people throughout my life. I’ve lived many incredible experiences. I’ve had to leave many homes behind. But, I carry them with me wherever I go, and have begun to share them in the words of this blog.

NR Hatch  wrote: “I am not going to worry about the passage of time until my feet no longer look good in flip flops.  If my eyesight fails quickly enough, that day will never come.” Nobody can win the battle against time, so I am not going to try. But, I am going to try to preserve memories in a way that they can never truly be lost–not by collecting possessions, but through a collection of words and images. I know that there is a possibility that I will follow my father down the dark path of oblivion, but I intend to leave a lot of stories behind.

So now, I’m simply home.

Memory Receding

A moment of panic in the dark. Where am I? Who am I? What day is it? Why am I? This was just a dream or a moment of waking from a dream. A moment of unknowing that I cannot forget.

Is this the daily existence for a man who lived in his brain, my father?

Just a couple of years ago he was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, after his symptoms took a turn for the worst. He’d been showing them for years, but nobody paid attention, blaming his mood shifts and other difficulties on hearing or alcohol. But it wasn’t that.

It was the loss of his being in his mind.

He still knows us, but has moments of not-knowing, or moments of pure memory. He is still my dad, but then again he is not. I am not with him often, but when I am there he is not with me. Not really.

I feel like I should mourn, but I do not know how. He has always been the person I went to when I had questions that involved the mind, but I cannot say we were ever truly close. I don’t know that anyone in my family was ever truly close.

My memories have faded as well.

It is painful to know that this man who used to  be so vibrant and who used to charm all of my friends, is somehow fading into himself. I never even really talk to him anymore, as the phone is my only contact with my family and he never talks. I think my family somewhat resents my physical distance which makes it even harder to call. My physical distance is becoming metaphysical.

In all honesty I am afraid. I am afraid of watching someone dwindle and disappear right before my eyes.  But  at isn’t the only thing I fear. I am afraid of watching my future. Am I destined to disappear in a similar way, my mind receding back into memory until there is nothing left but emptiness? I can’t live life like that.

I miss my dad.

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