My brothers and I always gave him crap for being so old. When I was a kid, my Dad was ancient. Of course he wasn’t actually old—he never actually got the chance.
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but it’s been too hard. Thinking about Dad’s last few years, how sad and lonely Alzheimer’s must be from the inside, how difficult it was for Mom, it all just makes me teary-eyed and choked up. On the surface it’s easier to push emotions aside and pretend they aren’t there, but somewhere underneath there’s a void—an emptiness that feels like it won’t be filled until I get some of this stuff out…
…and writing is much easier than talking, so here we go.
Last week Dad would have been 65. That’s too young to die. There is supposed to be so much life to live at that age, years that a person has earned the right to live.
When I was growing up, I never realized how loved my Dad was. As it turns out, he made an impact on a lot of people. I know he was a good father, uncle, grandfather, husband, but I had no idea how many people were affected by his contagious laughter, his hard-working attitude, his always-friendliness.
From my young perspective my Dad was just a Dad doing Dad things—fooling around in the garage, being grumpy when Matt and I kicked each other on the couch, working hard every day, mowing the lawn, yelling at us for slamming a door, doing crossword puzzles in his recliner, all the things Dads do.
But I didn’t realize until we started losing him, or maybe after he was gone, that he did a lot more than the regular Dad stuff. He taught me how to swing a golf club at Coonhunters (a tiny turd of a par 3 in the boonies, complete with funnel-shaped sand greens, where a 9 iron and putter are also your walking sticks). He taught me the value of a hard-earned dollar. He discreetly encouraged my education with well-timed jabs and the occasional inquiry of how my grades were. He taught me how to be a good husband, how to love and respect my wife, my equal partner in life’s journey. And if one day Sarah and I decide it’s time to have children, I’m confident I’ll be a great father because of his example.
I remember one day, I must have been about 10 or 11. It was the first time I remember being impressed by my Dad. I had the fastest time in the 50-yard dash in the 4th grade track meet tryouts. I of course was untouchable in my mighty chariot. He challenged me to a race in the back yard. I got all geared up in my gym shorts and “fast shoes” while he remained in his usual blue jeans and cowboy boots. Naturally, he kicked my ass in the race—a very humbling moment when the dorky Dad beats the cocky son in an event normally dominated by the young, nimble athlete—but that day I learned that my Dad wasn’t just another dorky old man.
I know Dad was always proud of me, but I always felt like he was most proud when I was playing drums and percussion on stage. In all my years playing in various bands through high school and college, I don’t think he and Mom missed a single performance. They wouldn’t dream of it. I love that about my parents. Some of those performances must have been gruelingly long and fantastically boring, but I never for a second doubted their support.
In fact, I think that’s what I loved most about my Dad. He always supported me no matter what I was doing. He always had my back. I wouldn’t have known it at the time—what ignorant kid would? But he was always there.
I’d like to point out that while I’ve been typing this, two of the most emotion-inducing songs have come up on Pandora: “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton and “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin. Yep, the flood gates are open.
I hadn’t been out of college very long when Dad was diagnosed with dementia. While I was married and owned my own house and was very much a grownup, I was still really just a kid. Looking back I wish I had spent more time with him during those last years. I feel like I’ve been cheated out of knowing my father from the perspective of another man, rather than just a child. I feel like we would be good friends today.
Much of what’s best in me, I realize now, comes from my Dad. I always try to be friendly and courteous to anyone I meet, and I know he was the same way. I think I inherited his sometimes dry sense of humor, his infectious belly laugh, male-pattern baldness (thanks for that), and his capacity to watch the same movies over and over and over again, although my preference for movies like Forrest Gump or Shawshank Redemption or Dumb & Dumber are in much better taste than his fondness for Rio Lobo or Chisum or anything else featuring his favorite cowboy John Wayne.
Alzheimer’s works in strange ways. Some people live with it for many years. For Dad it progressed very quickly, and for that I am thankful. He hated not being able to follow conversations, not being entirely sure of his sons’ names, not being able to drive, knowing that it wasn’t going to get better.
After bearing this incredible burden on her shoulders, even as relatively quickly as it came and passed, but how agonizingly long and difficult the road must have been, I am absolutely convinced that my Mother is a superhero, and she deserves all the very best things this life can offer.
Dad’s death was hard for all of us. It didn’t happen quickly and unexpectedly, like my uncle (and one of my favorite people ever) Denny, who was killed in a tragic work accident in his 50s. Dad’s death was slow, but imminent. We all knew it would happen sooner than later, and we all know that death is a part of life, but you can never adequately prepare for losing a family member. Mom says we started losing him many years ago, and I suppose that’s true. That sentiment did provide some comfort when I hugged Mom in the kitchen in the days following his death, but he’s still a big loss to everyone who knew him.
I really miss my Dad. I don’t know if there’s a heaven, but I really hope there is and maybe one day I can see him again. Maybe we’ll play a round of golf. Maybe we’ll watch Bonanza or a Hawkeye football game. Maybe we’ll just sit and enjoy a few beers together. Maybe we’ll have a race in the back yard and he’ll let me win this time.
Until then, Old Man, I’ll keep trying to make you proud.