This has been a hard post to write. I thought about different ways to tell it. I even thought I would not mention it and write about our latest remodeling or landscaping project. But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t let Father’s Day go by without writing about my dad.
Having a father with Alzheimer’s puts a different twist on Father’s Day. If you don’t get him a card or gift, he won’t know. If you call to wish him a happy day, he won’t remember as soon as you hang up. And during that call, he will ask you several times who you are and how old you are and tell you he is doing fine. Having a father with Alzheimer’s is hard.
Dad was diagnosed in 2009, at the age of 84. We had suspected something was going on for a few years before the official diagnosis. Every year, he slowly gets worse. He only recognizes my step-mother now, but lately, he has been forgetting who she is. He still lives at home and requires constant care. He cannot be left alone.
When I visited him earlier this year, he talked about being in the war. He talked about shooting, being shot at and doing what he was told so he wouldn’t die. He talked about landing in Okinawa and seeing heads blown. He mentioned Iwo Jima. This was not a conversation. He was sitting in his chair, repeating over and over the same several sentences about the war. Many times he would ask himself a question about the war, and then answer it. The same questions and answers over and over. I was sitting across the room from him and when I tried to ask different questions, he didn’t answer them. I took notes on what he was saying and I believe these events happened to him, even though his discharge papers indicate his principal duty was mechanic air 747.
Having Alzheimer’s has removed his filters. When I was a child, he would never talk about being in the war. My siblings and I knew he had been a Marine because we saw the pictures of him in his uniform. He would only say he worked on airplanes and wouldn’t answer questions.
He also never talked much about his life growing up. Dad was born in 1925. When he was only 7, his father died in an industrial accident. At the age of 14, his mother could no longer handle him. With no husband and 3 other children to care for, she placed him in a work camp for boys. He was living there, going to school and learning a trade, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered WWII. The home was closed and all the boys old enough enlisted. Dad was 16. He found work and a place to stay with a mechanic until he could enlist. He went into the Marines August 16, 1943 and served until July 1946.
Other than the part about his father’s passing, we didn’t know any of this. We were adults when our grandmother passed. That is when he told us about her dropping him off at the home and leaving him there. We also learned that he did not reconcile with her until he was discharged from the service.
He is not the same man I have known all my life. That man was intelligent. He went to college after the war and became a chemical engineer. He was mechanically inclined and could fix things around the house. He could use tools and finish basements and fix leaking sinks. That man was confident. That man was funny. That man was strict and we often feared him. That man was not perfect and he made mistakes.
I wasn’t really close to my dad before or after my parent’s divorce. He intimidated me and I knew not to make him angry. He would take my younger brothers on weekends, but I never went. I saw him maybe once a month. After I graduated high school, I saw him less and less. As an adult, there were years I saw him only on holidays. So you see, this won’t be about how close we were and how much I miss that or how inspiring he was.
I admit I was influenced by his work ethic and his drive. I know I got my analytical way of thinking and approaching life from him. I also got his dry sense of humor.
I wish I could talk to him now and he would know me. I wish I could ask him all the questions I have about his life and his decisions – good and bad. I wish I would have had the courage to do that before Alzheimer’s took him away and left this dad shell in his place.
The last time I saw him, I got angry. Just the two of us were in the house. My step-mom had gone out for lunch with a friend – a much needed break. We were sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch. He was repeatedly asking me my name and when he found out I was his daughter, he would say, “I remember you when you were a little girl. You were a tough little thing.” After several times of this same conversation, I raised my voice and said, “Dad, Look at me. Look at me. I am Peggy. Don’t remember me as a little girl. Remember now. Remember who I am NOW.” He looked at me confused. I said, “I love you, Dad.” He said, “Dad? Am I your father?” “Yes, Dad, you are. I’m Peggy”. I got up and cleared the dishes. “Let’s go watch TV, Dad. Lunch is done.”
I called Dad today. After catching up with my step-mom, I asked her to put him on the phone for a Father’s Day chat. It was the same as always. He asked me who I was. How old I was. How old he was. He said my step-mom was taking good care of him and he was fine. Then, we had the same conversation over again. After a few minutes I said, “I love you, Dad. I got to go.”
This is the best I can do. This is the best I can be for him. This disease has taken him away already.
If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, you may be able to relate. If not, please don’t judge me.
Please support the Alzheimer’s Association.