My father, joking, always took exception to being born on the shortest day of the year—Dec. 21, winter's stingiest point for daylight. He complained with a twinkle in his eye that he had been deprived of his full day of celebration.
We always laughed. My mother always kidded, "Poor boy!" Warm in our little house with winter knocking about outside, he went about making the cocktails—rye and ginger and ice—and she heated the dinner. We brought out the birthday cards and he opened his presents. He was born in 1921 and died in 2007. His date of birth was one of his few complaints over 85 years, manufactured as it was for a laugh. He lived a charmed life—a 58-year marriage, longevity in his career and a peaceful retirement.
He died, strangely enough, on Father's Day of this year, by eerie symmetry one of the year's longest days.
It wasn't a huge surprise to our family, just an endpoint to the struggle called Alzheimer's disease. One doctor likened the disease to being a passenger on a train that has not yet reached the station. Whatever. It was sort of a bumpy ride with a lot of scruffy scenery and occasional glimpses of lovely views. The struggle shifted my father over to a kind of parallel world, a world of the not-quite-living. Ultimately his one connection to the world he had left was my mother, his caregiver. She supplied what he needed throughout his life and up until the day of his death.
Cause of death? I can't remember what the death certificate said. Pneumonia? Some sort of heart problem? Something for the official record. I felt he died of an inability to communicate. Alzheimer's mangled his thoughts and robbed him of his speech. It stuffed him wordless in a corner of a busy room where everybody else was moving and talking and conducting the business of the world. It deprived him of his self-respect.
Father's Day, June 17, was bright and sunny here in the Wood River Valley, a good day to start with a hike in the hills and to forget for a moment our concerns over my father's declining health. Two weeks before, my brother, a doctor, had warned us that my father probably wasn't coming home from the nursing home. He had been sleeping uneasily and refusing food. He didn't want to be there in the first place so the prospect of never coming home was an ominous sign.
The first time he was there, recovering from a bout of shingles, I walked in and found him ready for fisticuffs with his new roommate—two elderly men, hair askew, fists clenched, bare knees braced where their hospital gowns ended, and ready to defend their territory. The last time, heeding my brother's advice, I made a quick weekend trip to see him and comfort my mother, secretly grateful that my father's nursing-home confinement had offered her some respite from 24-7 care-giving responsibilities.
When I returned to Hailey, I wondered if I'd be returning soon to my boyhood home. But I'm a father myself, so my wife and I planned a Father's Day hike to see the wildflowers on Proctor Mountain.
My brother telephoned just as we were headed out the door for the hike. He said my father had passed away earlier in the morning and that he was finally at peace. Standing shakily in the kitchen, our backpacks ready for the trip, we hugged and then paced a bit and talked about the situation and rather quickly came to the conclusion that it would be good to take the hike.
The movement and the warmth of the day felt good. The wildflowers weren't nearly as brilliant this year, or maybe it was just our timing. Sadness came along for the ride, a hollow feeling and numbness. By the end of the hike we had devised a plan to deal with the next several weeks. The sheer joy of talking and shifting thoughts back and forth and the simplicity of communication, well, it was invigorating—even in the worst of times.
As the oldest of my father's three children, I've tried to be clear-eyed, calm and constant since his death. We've never been a family to show a great deal of emotion, so I tried to compose a straightforward eulogy, touching on the welcome, recognizable ports of family history. Inevitably, the funeral service got as mangled as my father's speech toward the end of the difficult ceremony, and the funeral director unceremoniously dropped the urn into the hole at the cemetery. Afterward at the post-funeral luncheon, we laughed heartily about it, my sister, my son and myself. It was a tremendous release.
Months passed. I waited for it to hit me, the realization that my father was gone. Thanksgiving morning arrived and there were rare moments with nothing to do. I devoured Cormac McCarthy's brisk and wonderful Western saga "No Country for Old Men," in nearly one sitting.
There were two revelations you won't see in the movie. One was a crackling section of dialogue between the book's doomed hero and a woman he had just met that illustrated the devotion of a simple man to his wife. The other, the final page, was a startling homage out of nowhere to a lawman's father. It showed a simple man paying tribute to the father who had guided him along the trail of life. I was unprepared and cried for the first time, a silent cry, stifling the sound so I wouldn't disturb the dinner preparations in the other room. As quickly as it came, it was over. I set the book aside, thankful.
My father gave me everything I have—life itself, the example of enduring love and the knowledge that sacrifice is a good thing. He was a man who took great joy in words and language. He respected the laws of punctuation and took me to task when I overlooked them and bluffed my way through. If I can communicate in words at all, it's because of what he showed me. If I can forgive my mistakes and those of others, it's because he showed me it was the proper course of action.
You take a journey with your parents. Ours started post-war in a second-story, walk-up apartment over a grocery store. My father was born three years after his father came home from the Great War. I was born four years after my father returned from World War II service in Italy. I like to think of both of them as strapping, youthful men who made choices, accepted commitments and let the chips fall where they may.
Our apartment window overlooked a back alley. It was a short walk from the train station where he went to work in the big city every morning. When I got up I looked out the window and imagined him on the train going to work. Entertainment options were limited—television was new and rare. I enjoyed listening to Italian opera on our record player while looking out the window.
We moved twice. The first move was to a neighborhood of duplex houses, again, on the second floor. The second move was to the 1,000-square-foot house where my parents lived for 50 years. We didn't have many toys, but my parents had steady work and a roof over their heads. I lived in the house until I was 18 and then came and went. Every time I left, my parents saluted my departure, standing beside each other, smiling and waving.
I got into my share of trouble and we had our share of strident conversations as a family, but my father kept a cool head. After one of my particularly stupid bits of 20-something behavior, he summoned me to a face-to-face steak dinner. The damage had already been done but I was still apprehensive. Fortunately the dinner was fun and civilized. There was one exchange I remember to this day. He said in no uncertain terms that restraint was usually the proper course of action. And he picked up the bill. The whole evening and lack of theatrics and way of communicating the message made a lasting impression on me.
As his Alzheimer's intensified and his train drew closer to the final station, my father had the usual symptoms—the shuffling of papers, the repetition of routines, the reliance on ancient history, the wandering off, the anger, the inconsiderate way he trampled on those who wanted to provide help and, sometimes, moments of extraordinary tenderness.
Most prominent was my father's difficulty in transferring thought to speech. He would start a sentence and get halfway through and then the thought would disappear into dust, words reduced to gobbledygook, good intentions gone awry. When the gibberish started and he tried to remember where he was and what he was saying, my mother jumped in and tried to reconstruct the thought. She would speak loudly and with some frustration, saying, "Where are you?"
It was usually in Italy, a half century ago, on a non-sanctioned U.S. Army Intelligence mission with his buddies to find women for a day at the beach. For a moment they would go back and forth, my mother casting some doubt that my father's time in the service helped save the world from fascism. They looked at each other fondly. He was a man who had charmed his way through the military and a career of working with people in the travel industry and handling their complaints. Talking and communicating were important. Now they were mostly gone. She understood and took over telling the story and reviewing the history of their lives.
The dinner table was where we met as a family and had some of our happiest times. On my visits home in my father's final years, our little family start-up unit of three that had started out in that walk-up apartment over 50 years ago gathered at the dinner table of our house. My mother tried to make the microwave dinner as elegant as possible, dressing it up with rich muffins, dinner plates heated beforehand in the oven and pies that come in single slices. I made the cocktails that he used to make.
He didn't have much of an appetite and that made for lengthy times at the table, waiting for him to finish. But the time was so precious. When my father tripped over a thought and failed on his words, my mother would finish his sentences. I've never seen such a look of kindness on a person's face as that on my father's face as he watched my mother interpret what he was trying to say.
Being able to communicate and verbalize your thoughts is one of the greatest gifts a person has. For my father, it was life itself. When it was gone, so eventually was he. Having seen his struggle, naturally I fear the same outcome for myself and similar trials and tribulations for my loved ones. But the optimism I learned from my father and mother overrides that fear and gives me hope.
I must say, since his death I've become calmer and less judgmental. Maybe I've realized that thought and speech and conversation are miracles in themselves. Sometimes things just come out wrong, but the important thing is that they come out at all.
We got a Christmas letter from a dear man full of humility and verve, Ed Granger, 88, the former interim pastor at the Presbyterian Church in Ketchum. He said he lives in the woods of Arkansas with his wife. In the morning, he said, "we talk and talk and review our history." What a nice way to say it—review our history!
The days are short or some days feel long but there is never a better time than the present. Turn off the television and adjust the music. Tune in to the things that have made you what you are. As the commander of your history get ready to unleash an army of positive thoughts with just a single word or act of kindness.