but toward the end of November my Dad's wife let us all know that if we wanted to see him again, it should be soon.
My older sister and I drove up with our spouses and my younger stepdaughter (who wanted to meet him). My Dad's cancer had metastasized to his spine and he was failing quickly. Dad also had advanced Alzheimer's and the previous time I had visited, he still knew me but was confused by the presence of my new husband. Still, he was affable and we had a nice visit. It was a marked change, however, from the visit before that, when he could talk about his dementia and share memories. On this most recent visit at the beginning of the month, it was clear that he did not really know who we were. And let me tell you, in spite of all my training in neurocognitive decline, I was not prepared for the gut punch of not being recognized by a parent. I kissed him on the cheek and told him I loved him and he said, "Well, I love you, too!" And that was about as coherent as he got on the lunch visit. Still, several times I looked up to see him intently studying my face and it appeared as if he was aware that I was familiar but couldn't place me. I am glad we went, because a few days ago, he slipped away.
My father was a complicated man. When his parents divorced, his mother walked away from him believing she could better find a new husband without a young son in the way. Raised in a strict military household by a father who married four times in total, Dad went to the Naval Academy and then on to MIT for a master's degree in mechanical engineering.
I know, we look like a perfect little 1960's suburban family. Dad struggled with alcohol dependence his entire adulthood and life was often chaotic. When drinking, he wasn't able to suppress his rage and my mother either couldn't or wouldn't protect us. When he wasn't drinking, though, he was a great dad. He was very bright and had a fantastically quick wit.
And he was also affectionate and very involved in his kids' lives. After my parents divorced, when I was ten, we visited on alternate weekends and holidays. For a while, this involved him driving about 500 miles each way to pick us up to spend a couple of days with him.
When he got stationed in Hawaii, I spent a summer and we got out to hike, camp, and go to the beach every weekend. In fact, we grew up hiking and houseboating and generally getting outdoors as much as possible. I credit him in large part for my love of nature.
Dad remarried quickly after the divorce and the family merged. My stepbrother and stepsister (who my father adopted) became my brother and sister.
When I went off to boarding school in Switzerland, a perk of his new job, he surprised me on parents weekend by flying unannounced from Saudi Arabia just to spend a couple of days with me. I had been homesick and was thrilled by the visit. He came back in June to see me graduate.
But we became estranged around the time of my first marriage, when I was 25. I needed to talk about the hard parts of our childhood and apparently he had a need NOT to talk about it. My letter to him went unanswered, he skipped my wedding, and we did not speak for four years. But at my brother's wedding, he sat down with me to acknowledge the abuse and ask forgiveness. That's a remarkably healing thing and it lifted a burden from my heart.
We had a great relationship from then on. I visited when I could and we were always happy to spend time together.
He was tickled when I got pregnant, and happier still when I gave each of my sons family last names as their middle names. He doted on his grandsons until he was no longer able to do so. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's about ten years ago, but the signs were there for a few years before that.
His funeral is this Thursday. This wouldn't have been my choice for returning to my blog, but you take what life hands you. And what life handed me was a sometimes furious and brutal/sometimes happy and tender father. I know one thing about him beyond a shadow of a doubt, though - he loved me and my sons fiercely. He never failed to say so. I miss him terribly but I have that fierce love stored in my heart.
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