My father is gone. But, then, in actuality, he has been gone for several years now.
Alzheimer's Disease is brutal... much more brutal than cancer. I never thought I would say that, having lost my mother to lung cancer 22 years ago, but I find, with the death of my father last night, that it is true. Cancer attacks the body, but Alzheimer's attacks the mind, the memory, the personality... that which makes us what we truly are. Alzheimer's robs a person of their true essence -- the person God made and built them to be -- and replaces them with an empty shell of themselves; present in body, but absent in mind. Sometimes kind, compassionate people turn into angry, vindictive people that you wouldn't want to be around, let alone grow up with or love. Sometimes the disease turns them into catatonic zombies that will only aknowledge you if prompted to. I've seen both phases during this long, difficult journey with my father.
Being a writer, it is natural that I would want to vent my sorrow and explore my inner thoughts concerning my father's death through the written word, and so I do. Mine is not a perfect story of a perfect relationship between father and son. Like so many similar stories, ours was one motivated by friction... friction caused by a mutual stubbornness and a failure -- or refusal -- to understand one another's viewpoint (particularly during my teens and twenties). He was a hardened, tool-and-die man of 40 years, while I was a sensitive, cerebral young man more intrigued by art and literature than sports, hunting, and "learning a solid trade". Such far-reaching differences make for a volatile relationship.
I suppose much of this friction began from the very beginning. My father was an army man when he and my mother married and, even after I was concieved, he continued his service... only without us. While he was stationed in Germany and then Korea, Mama and I stayed on the homefront. For the formative years of my life, it was just me and her ( talk about the catalyst for becoming a "mama's boy"). When Daddy finally did return to the States for good, I was two years old. Mama said I took the toy tank that he offered me, handed him his uniform hat, and said "Now go!" After that, there always seemed to be a distinctive distance between the two of us.
There was no denying that he truly loved me. It was just that he didn't exactly understand me. He didn't understand my leaning toward art during my early years and he certainly didn't understand my desire to become a published author in my mid-teens. He seemed frustrated that I didn't want to attend vocational school and learn a trade like engineering or drafting. I, in turn, was frustrated that he didn't see my talent and potential, the way my mother obviously did. After my first novel was published, he began to see that my aspirations were valid and he developed pride in my accomplishments. A musician and lover of country music himself, he even tried his hand at song writing at one point.
I suppose we were the closest following the death of my mother in 1989. I was still living at home at that time and we found ourselves depending upon one another to fill in the gaps that Mama's absence had left behind. I helped him pay his bills and keep his financial state in order (something that Mama had always taken care of). In turn, he gave me the opportunity to quit my job and write for a living, helping me pay my car payment when I could have never done so otherwise.
If my father had one flaw, it was that he could not devote himself to more than one person at a time. So when he remarried, I found that our brief period of standing on common ground slipped a bit and we began to return to the way it had been before. His admiration continued, but that old awkwardness returned. Whenever we would meet it would be "How are you doing?"and "What have you been up to?", followed a strained silence, as my wife and step-mother (who, incidently, are neice and aunt... this is Tennessee, you know) carried on the majority of the conversation.
I do recall some of the ways he showed his love toward me and my family over the years, though. Daddy was an inventive person and could pretty much rig up any device that he set his mind to. I remember him using milk cartons packed with ice and linked to the air vents of his '56 Chevy to conjure up an artificial "air conditioner" to keep us cool during long vacation trips in the 60s. And, on another vacation trip in the mid-70s -- when there was no such thing as an Ipod -- he took an old 8-track car tape player, linking it to the car battery and postioning in the floorboard of the back seat where I sat, and wiring in stereo headphones, devised my own private stereo system because he knew how much I loved listening to my rock music back then. What other father would have had the ingenuity and desire to do such a special thing for his son?
After my marriage to Joyce and the birth of my first two children, however, I saw that ingenuity began to slip away and I suspected that something bad was taking place. His driving skills became erratic, he grew more irritable and frustrated at simple tasks, and his memory seemed to be faltering. I recall going to his house one Christmas to help him put up outdoor Christmas lights and finding him to be confused about how to do it, where his old self would have had no trouble at all. I remember me and Joyce riding with him to the local K-Mart to get lights for the shrubbery and porch and him regarding us suspiciously, as though he wasn't exactly sure who we were. After that, things got progressively worse and we discovered that he had been diagonosed with Alzheimer's Disease.
I wish to God that I could say that I spent a good deal of time with him during his declining years. But, as hurtful as the truth might be... no, I didn't. Due to my step-mother's conversion to Mormonish during Daddy's illness and her shunning of her old family in favor of her new one, an inpenetrable wall was built between us... one that has given me much grief and regret over the past year and a half. But I am not here to condemn another's religion or speak badly of anyone. I just find that I must defend myself against allegations of being a "bad son". I did my best to mend fences, but for the sake of my own family and particularly my children, keeping our distance was the best choice to make.
Although Daddy will be cremated and won't rest in the plot beside my mother (which pains me to no end), I can find comfort in the fact that he is now himself again... without confusion, without anger or pain. Being a Christian, I believe he resides with my mother, as clear-minded as he ever was and much happier and contented that he was in life. As for me, I'm looking forward to the time when I can see his smile and shake his hand and, together, we can stand on common ground once again.
I love you, Daddy.