Dad’s been gone a little more than five months.
Actually, Dad has been gone for years.
Several ignored strokes, until the last big one about fifteen years ago, made sure of that. I think the doctor’s last count was seven different incidents – each one leaving in its wake a little less Dad.
Motivation was one of the area’s of the brain that had been most severely affected. As was his ability to read and write. His peripheral vision was also shot.
So he sat.
And eventually he lost sight of everything that made him tick, gave him purpose, he was good at.
I watched the frustration in his once playful eyes when things weren’t clicking in his quick and clever mind, and quietly mourned the lengthening shadow of darkness and void that would eventually smother the once strong light and turn his weaknesses upon himself and others; until his needs pummeled Mom and his words became brutal.
Jim took him in and centered his life on his new twenty-four hour ward; the once powerful figure who now missed the toilet and couldn’t find focus; who spent the days crying and the nights wandering. By the time we placed Dad in assisted living, the shadow was growing darker and the void, wider. Conversations were now repetitive communications driven by a series of questions he’d ask again and again.
Always about family, living and dead.
It became impossible to steer him away from this endless loop because it was all Dad had left to hold on to. It was the only way he could be more than a figure in the room, struggling for thoughts, for words, for loved ones, for himself.
His body remained strong for his years and history, but that didn’t surprise anyone. Dad had always been a natural athlete with a small, fleet build and a bold swagger. Yet however strong his heart might have been, his muscles and mind began to atrophy after all those years of sitting, doing hours and hours of nothing. And after a while, his skinny, sinewy legs (which had hiked a thousand miles of fairways and greens) twisted weakly beneath him; while cherished faces and times and places steadily stepped into the darkness.
Rare became the instants, during my all-too-brief, long-distance visits, when I saw that certain twinkle that came to his eyes when he was pleased, or about to be funny… or silly, or sweet.
Dad’s wheezy, cartoon dog laughter was something, however, that endured and could happily be summoned to the great relief of everyone hovering uncomfortably in his small room scattered with pictures of loved ones, now mostly strangers.
Rarest was the sound of his strong, steady, low voice, which throughout my life would sing in my ear when he used my pet name, or make my heart (and feet) leap when he hollered, “Anne Elizabeth!” The years had made it weak and weary; a whisper of a voice, ever shaken by unaccountable emotions.
I remember when I last heard Dad.
It startled me because it had been a very long time since he’d sounded so alert, so vigorous, so alive.
It happened during our regular Sunday phone call. Jim, at the other end of the line said, “It’s Nonz.” and handed Dad the receiver. I don’t recall a word of what was said. All I heard was a forgotten voice, which until that very moment, I hadn’t felt such ache for.
It startled me and left me speechless – and anxious – to hear “Dad” speak again.
But “Dad” never did.
Yet in that flash, in those few words, he was once again my wings, my warden, my beacon, my banker, my mentor, my tormentor, my knight in shining armor.
And everything felt right.
And then it didn’t and I cursed myself for not plucking the ether of that very brief moment and stealing those words to stuff deep in my pockets, where I’d keep them to remind me of the Dad he used to be.
The Dad who’d gather us beneath the covers of their queen-sized bed on stormy nights, when thunder rolled across Lake Michigan like a mighty wave and lightening set a gnarly, old oak outside their wall of windows afire with its flash of silver-blue light. In our small tent of sheets, with our heads tucked close together, he’d tell us ghost stories (while Mom helped us count the seconds between the lightening and thunder), or make us giggle with a gentle tickle, until the seconds ascended, the storm was passing, and we were brave enough to return to our own beds upstairs.
The very strict Dad who, after raising five children who excelled at bad behavior, gradually mellowed and raised the white flag in the form of a hanger he’d found in a closet, draped with some stuff we grew on the bluff and planned to smoke later. Hanger in hand, he walked into the family room where three-fifths of us were lounging and asked very calmly what he was holding. One of us answered with remarkable composure, “That’s pot, Dad.”
After he questioned its reason for hanging, Dad reached for a bud, gave it a squeeze and said, “It’s not dry yet.” He then walked to a nearby table, hung the harvest from the shade of a lamp and left the room without another word.
But Dad had a temper that no one liked seeing, which sometimes got violent and scary, when all that charm and good looks disappeared behind a mask of unreason, and we were left angry, helpless and confused about how a man so loving and generous could have such potent demons.
But then I got older and my very own demons got bolder, as most people’s do.
And the Dad I choose to remember is the one that no matter how mad we were at each other, by the end of the day, he’d always say, “I love you.”
Except for the time I threw an unforgettably, unregrettably fun costume party: “The Best Little Whorehouse in Lake Bluff.”
Dad first heard the theme of my party that night from fellow country club members whose children would be there. He was livid. Yet he never tried to stop it. He simply refused to speak to me for days following.
Passing me in the kitchen.
Averting his eyes.
Until one day, I broke the silence, begged for a word, pleaded for a lecture.
Eventually, he gave me both.
Along with a hug of immeasurable comfort.
Even as Dad’s words and mind stopped giving, his hugs were endlessly rich and generous.
If I close my eyes, I can still feel them.
It helps me remember Dad when he was vivid and present. A powerful presence. A stubborn dreamer, a cocky, passionate schemer who pursued his passions head first, wholeheartedly, sometimes very foolishly, with great success and equal failure.
His greatest achievement – a bountiful life, not only in the hearth, but in the home; where he fostered dreams and fledglings’ freedoms, until off we flew to face our own big dreams and our own demons. So, I’m grateful for the moments I told Dad that I loved him, talked to him about nothing, apologized for everything, and thanked him for the lives he set in motion.
Even though he wouldn’t remember any of it by the time our visit was over.
It’s why some Sundays, I didn’t – couldn’t – pick up the phone.
But love is in the giving – in the moments Dad heard, “I love you.” So, Sunday would roll round again and I’d answer the phone and tell him different stories about our faraway lives. And in between the questions and tears, I‘d fill his soon forgotten moments with love and laughter, and long distance hugs of immeasurable comfort.