No crafts, today. Today is about family.
Yesterday, I became an orphan. Well, at least, that’s how I feel. My father, who was 83, has been a victim of Alzheimer’s disease for the last seven years, and lost the battle at 1:00 am yesterday morning. I think it’s the first battle he ever lost.
It could be argued that, as he had this disease-that-is-not-a-disease for seven years, I became an orphan seven years ago. But if you are not familiar with Alzheimer’s, you don’t know: it doesn’t take anyone all the way, not immediately. There are good days, and there are bad ones. Periods of lucidity, and periods of dementia. It chips away at the person who has it, little by little, day by day.
First it’s little things, and they don’t even realize it. They forgot your name for a minute. Didn’t recognize you at first. But this can be explained: they were lost in another world, or you were standing in shadow and they couldn’t see you clearly. No big deal. And you both laugh it off.
Then it gets bigger. They forget to eat meals. Or they forget to shower, or how to put a shirt on. How to dial a phone. Where they were going. And you realize something is more wrong than you knew. And the doctor says Alzheimer’s.
And your heart sinks, because according to insurance companies, Alzheimer’s isn’t a disease, it’s a normal part of aging. None of that person’s care will be covered. It will all be out-of-pocket. Because it’s not a disease.
Really? Because my next door neighbor is also 83. She lives alone, with a toy poodle, drives herself where she needs to go most of the time. She cares for herself. Her mind is as sharp as a tack. If it’s a normal part of aging, why doesn’t she have it? Why don’t thousands of other elderly people have it?
There is nothing “normal” about watching the mind of your mother or father slowly destroy itself over the course of years. I can’t begin to explain the devastation you feel when the person that raised you to adulthood looks at you and sees a stranger. How it feels when you have the same conversation about how you know each other six times in a period of fifteen minutes because they don’t remember asking you that question two minutes ago.
My father was the strongest man I ever knew. He led an amazing life, and did so much. He was in the Air Force, he was an aeronautical engineer, he was a pilot, he was a race car driver. He was a son, a brother, a cousin, an uncle, a nephew, a father, and a grandfather. He meant something to so many people, but he meant so much more to my brother and me. As children, he turned us into airplanes every night and flew us to bed, complete with airplane sounds. He watched us crawl around the house under patchwork quilts, running into each other and the walls, giggling like mad, and decided that we must be “mugwumps”. Every night when he got home from work, he would call out “Where’re my mugwumps?”
All tickle fights started with Dad. He taught us both to ride bikes. He took us kite flying at Eisenhower Park. He coached Little League and track. He went to all recitals and school plays.
When I came home from my first day of driver’s ed at sixteen, he was shocked at the fact that I was afraid to take the car over fifteen miles per hour, and took me out that very afternoon to the parkway during rush hour. Rush hour in New York, which is a different beast than it is almost anywhere else. I learned to drive that day, terrified and elated as I managed to get from the onramp into the stream of traffic. I never feared driving again.
He was our disciplinarian. Mom was scarier, but Dad issued punishments other than spanking. When we got in trouble, Mom would spank us, but then follow up with the threat of “Wait till your father gets home”, which left us in dread of that hour. The punishment could be another spanking, or it could be grounding. You didn’t know, and the unknown made it more frightening.
As a teenager, while horsing around with my little brother, I tripped over him in a dark hallway and fell into a vase that Mom kept there to hold umbrellas and canes. The vase broke, and I narrowly missed severing my spine. I didn’t even feel it. When the vase broke, my brother and I ran for our rooms as Mom started yelling. Then I saw the blood dripping from my back onto the white bedspread.
Normally, the hospital was about twenty minutes away. Remember I said Dad was a race car driver? He used to drive in gymkhana races when I was a baby, and had a ton of trophies. He threw me into the car, and we made it to the hospital in less than ten minutes. I’d missed my spine by about a centimeter. I got stitches and swore I would never horse around again. I forgot that promise within a day, but never forgot the ride to the hospital. Dad loved speed, and so did I.
Dad worked for a defense contractor, first as an aeronautical engineer, then as an administrator, something that didn’t happen often for Blacks in the seventies, so it was something to be proud of. He worked for Grumman, the contractor who built the F-14 Tomcat, and Dad was a big part of that. Grumman was also a big part of the space program, so Dad was part of that too.
When my brother started Little League, and track when he was a bit older, Dad was right there to get involved. Home from work, into jeans (which he called “dungarees” for my entire life–he was the only person I ever knew that did), and out the door to the park to play ball.
When I went away to college, Mom and Dad helped me move into the dorm. One of my newest friends asked me if he was my dad; when I answered yes, she told me to tell him he was fine. We were eighteen; at the time, Dad was 53. I passed on the message. Dad grinned, winked at me, and said, “Tell her I know.”
I laughed and said “I’ll tell her you’re modest, too!”
When my oldest was born, I breastfed, but by the time she was seven months old, the PIP wanted to be able to help with feeding, and we also wanted to be able to give her juice in a bottle. Aneira wasn’t having it. She wanted nothing to do with the bottle. Enter my dad. The day they met, Christmas Eve, he took her from me and gave her the bottle just like it was something he did every day. She accepted it and never gave us any trouble about a bottle again. We were open-mouthed. We’d tried for months and gotten nowhere. Dad just shrugged.
With the deaths of my mother six months later, and his sister two years after, Alzheimer’s moved in. My brother and his fiancee moved in with Dad, all of us thinking this way we could keep him with us and avoid a facility, something with which we hadn’t had a good experience before. Within a year, we all knew that we couldn’t avoid it, and my brother found him a very nice facility, where Dad could live out his life under supervision. He wouldn’t even need to be moved when it came time for hospice care; the facility was specifically for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. He was happy enough there, but Alzheimer’s took everything from him, from his family to every accomplishment to his very self.
When the call came yesterday morning, part of me was relieved. Dad was back with Mom, and it was finally over. Another part of me was a child, crying for Daddy to come and get her. Nobody can ever replace Daddy.
Vincent D. 5/31/1933 to 1/20/2017. Survived by daughter and son. We love and miss you.