Saturday, June 26, 2004

“Who was your Father?” (Part I)

Someone asked me that recently.
Now I'm sure there was no intention to necessarily insinuate past tense, but I was somewhat taken aback at the question, since my Father is still very much alive — a hale and hearty 81 years of age. At least, that is, he's as hale as can be expected of a man that age, who also underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery a little more than two years ago. As to be expected, he was also ordered by his doctors to lose that spare tire he'd been carrying around his waist for the last 40 years or so, and to exercise more often. But when I saw him last month, he looked as fit as I can remember seeing him my entire life.

He's hardly lost a hair on his head, although they're nearly all as white as snow now. And though time has managed to fade the color of his hair, it's been totally unsuccessful in fading the smile on his face or the twinkle in his eye. My Dad is a handsome man, with an almost embarrassingly gregarious manner. He's the type that will immediately glance at the name badge of the girl behind the counter at the fast-food restaurant, specifically so that he can answer her by name when she asks for his order. He's not trying to be flirty or fresh, he's just personable. That's the kind of person he is.

He is a two-time widower, has already buried one of his children, and thereby has seen more sorrow than any man should ever have to deal with in a single lifetime. Yet nothing that I've ever seen him go through has seemed to change him. He is the same today as I remember him being as a child: loving, enthusiastic and sincere.

He's my hero, and the one who I've always attempted to emulate as both a man and a Father. I've often said, when someone has given me a complement, that if you see anything good in me, it's only a reflection of my Pop.

However if you looked at my early childhood, it's actually rather odd that I would feel the way I do about my Father. I had three older brothers who got the kind of classic "All-American Dad" attention that any Baby-Boom product could have hoped for. My Father was the president of the local PTA. He was Cub Scout Den Leader and Little League Head Coach to my older brothers as well as scores of other neighborhood boys who thought the world of him.

He had a secure, well-paying job as head payroll accountant for a local factory. He sold World Book Encyclopedias on the side to make a little extra money. We lived in a modest, but nice house in a good middle-class neighborhood. My mom was a homemaker who was also busily involved in civic, school and church activities. Our family was loved and respected in the community. It was a real-life "Ozzie and Harriet" existence.

Then the first and most severe heartache was visited upon him. My Mother began exhibiting instances of forgetfulness and erratic behavior. A normally meticulous housekeeper, piles of laundry and dirty dishes inexplicably began to pile up around the house. My aunts and uncles became harshly critical of my Dad for not giving her more help. What with four rambunctious boys and a fifth one on the way, surely a little more cooperation was in order. My Dad agreed, and did what he could to pitch in with the housework. Yet while he was at his job during the day, less and less was getting done at home. My Mom's forgetfulness also increased. She began to uncharacteristically miss appointments, and fail to meet her commitments outside the home. People started to notice. Word spread in our small town.

"He's driving her crazy," they whispered. "He's working that poor woman to death."

At this point, my Dad was desperate for answers. He took my Mother to a local doctor, who in turn arranged for tests to be performed at a hospital in Indianapolis by a neuro-specialist named Dr. Zieman.

After several tests, the diagnosis was unsure, but Dr, Zieman told my Dad that my Mother appeared to be suffering from a newly-classified brain disorder called "Pre-Senile Dementia" also known as "Alzheimer's Disease."

The year was 1961, my mother was 41 years old, and our lives would never be the same — especially my Dad's. He would soon be essentially alone to care for five children, and my Mom, as she gradually retreated into her world of confusion and detatchment. This once bright, intelligent and engaging woman was now becoming distant, frustrated and erratic. The Valedictorian of her high school class, whose graduation day speech asked her fellow students "What Kind of World Will We Leave to Our Children?" was now leaving her children and husband a difficult world indeed, though certainly not of her own volition.

Next: Cats in the Cradle
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