Sunday, June 27, 2004

“Who was your Father?” (Part II)

Cats in the Cradle
My son turned ten just the other day
He said "Thanks for the ball Dad, come on let's play!
Can you teach me to throw?"
I said "Not today — I got a lot to do." He said "That's okay."
He walked away but his smile never dimmed,
It said "I'm gonna be like him, yeah,
You know I'm gonna be like him."

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
"When you comin' home, Dad?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then, son —
You know we'll have a good time then"

From "Cats in the Cradle" © 1974 Harry Chapin

I said earlier that my Dad has been the same as long as I can remember. I think I need to clarify that. He has always been the same person in terms of his character and the strength of his soul. But what he had to go through for a decade would have broken lesser men. It did change him. But it didn't change the person he was.

There would be no Cub Scouts or Little League for my younger brother or me, but it wasn’t a matter of Cats in the Cradle-style indifference, but of necessity. The fact is, my reference to that classic Harry Chapin song is not to draw comparisons between my Father and the song's writer, but rather to myself and the son. My Dad was always my role model. And the fact that he spent almost no time with me while I was growing up never changed that. I understood why. We all did.

Back in the late 50s — early 60s there wasn’t the employer-provided medical insurance that's so common today. I’m sure my Dad’s company provided basic medical coverage for his family, but certainly nothing to cover an event such as this. My Father's life became his work — grinding out as much overtime as he could muster to pay the medical bills of my Mom's care as well as the rising expenses of a family of five growing boys.

It should be noted that my maternal Grandfather, who died long before I was born, also suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s, although it was unclassified at that point, and its victims were committed to insane asylums as “mentally disturbed.” My grandfather died in an institution such as this, in a room that was tantamount to a large steel cage, to protect those around him from his wild, violent mood swings.

So my Mother’s diagnosis with this newly classified disease was a breakthrough in what would soon be understood as a family-wide problem. For unbeknownst to most everyone else, my uncle, who lived in California, was a year older than my Mother and had begun exhibiting the same symptoms a year earlier. His wife, who had never gotten along particularly well with her husband’s family in Indiana had kept silent, attempting to deal with this frightening reality herself, rather than risk judgements from the family back East that it was somehow her fault. But when word surfaced that her husband’s younger sister was experiencing the same mysterious symptoms, Aunt Maxine quickly contacted my Dad to compare notes. This was the beginning of a confluence of individual fates that would add the most significant chapter yet to this novel of sweeping life changes for my family and me.

More on that later.

I didn't see much of my Dad from 1965, the year my Mother was committed to Logansport Mental Hospital, until she died in 1968, at the age of 48 (looking much more like 68). However she didn't have to suffer the horrific conditions that her father did, with a steel-cage room and electroshock treatments. They knew what her problem was, they just had no idea how to treat it. As a matter of fact, so little was known about the nature of Alzheimer's back then, that the only way to positively diagnose it was via post-mortem autopsy. Mom spent her last three years in relative comfort as her mental faculties continued to diminish. In the final days of her ability to still walk on her own, I would be told, she even lost the capacity to understand the functionality of a doorknob.

In the forth year she became catatonic and eventually succumbed to pneumonia. You see, Alzheimer's doesn't kill the body — It kills the brain. The body dies from the complications of the victim's subsequent prolonged bedridden existence.

I remember walking to school one day when I was in the 8th grade, two years after she had passed away. I was thinking of my Mom and all that had happened. She had been sick for practically as long as I could remember. Mere flashes of earliest childhood were my only touchstone of her as a whole person. I thought, "You know, it's pretty amazing that with all my family has been through, that I've turned out as normal as I have." Little did I know how relative the the term "normal" is. Yet however scarred I may be by the misfortunes of my family, I'm certain that it was my Dad's presence that lessened the blow; keeping me from more serious issues, some that my others in my family couldn't seem to escape. Even though I always knew our family experience was "different" from most everyone else's, I still had a happy childhood, with many, many fond memories.

When we moved to California in 1969 however, my life would take a radical change.

Next: Aunt Mom
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