Thoughts on my Father

1)  It’s early on Saturday morning.  My husband, already dressed, comes back into our room.  He seems to be speaking a foreign language, something I can’t comprehend.  I stare at him.  He repeats himself.

“You mean Daddy is dead?” I ask, finally.  “Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes,” he says.

2) My father was 85.  In some ways, we had all the notice in the world that this would happen.  He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2000 and has stayed in assisted living the past 10 years.

3) Unlike many other Alzheimer’s patients who quickly sicken and die, he had a very gradual decline.  Physically, he seemed robust — healthy and in no pain.  That’s what I mean when I say that, in other ways, this is a complete surprise.

4) “I checked him in the middle of the night and he was fine,” says one of the women who took care of him.  “Then I went back an hour later and he was dead.  He looked like he was asleep.  He was so peaceful.”

Earlier in the day, Daddy was more coherent than he had been recently.  When he talked, he made sense.  “He kept telling me ‘bye-bye,'” the woman says.  “He kept saying that over and over again.  ‘Bye-bye.  Bye-bye.'”

5) My sister, my only sibling, is in Poland.  My call won’t go through.  Skype doesn’t work.  I email her, which seems terrible, but what are the choices?

6) I finally reach my sister.  She tells me three things:  1) Daddy would want an American flag to be buried with him; 2) he loved me, even though I never thought he did; and 3) I took good care of him through the years.  I am sure she’s right about the American flag.

7) “We’re adults,” my daughter tells me over the phone, speaking of herself and her brother.  “You can lean on us, Mom.  You don’t have to do it all yourself.”

8  What went on in my father’s mind?  I used to wonder that during the early stages of his dementia.  Where was he?  Where was his mind?  He wasn’t who he used to be, so where had that person gone?  Is he whole now?

If you believe — as I do, I think — in the idea of a soul, then Alzheimer’s deeply fucks with your beliefs.

9) I have dealt with this funeral home before, when my mother died in 1997.  I call it the House of Death.  Its employees are unctuous, their voices syrupy and solemn, their for-sale items tacky and astronomically priced.  I don’t hate all undertakers; after all, I watched every season of “Six Feet Under.”  But I do loathe the House of Death.

10) “We need to get your sister’s signature if you want to cremate your father,” the House of Death representative tells me in sepulchral tones.

“Why?” I ask.  “I’m the executrix.  I’m the power of attorney.  Why isn’t that enough?”

“Because cremation is an irrevocable act,” Morticia says in her bell-tolls-for-thee voice.

“You have to deal with this,” I tell my husband.  “I can’t.”

11) “I’m at the beach,” my sister says when I call her.  “Can’t you hear the waves in the background?”

She must mean the beach at the Baltic, I think.

No, I say.  I can’t hear anything.

“They’re crashing so loudly,” she says.  “I can’t believe you can’t hear them.”

12) My father was born at home in 1924.  He was a surprise.  My grandmother gave birth to one baby, his twin sister.  Then a second baby appeared, much to everyone’s surprise.  It was my father.

His parents named the twins Hiram and Hira.  You think that’s bad?  They had twin aunts named Okla and Homa, reputedly the first twins born in the Oklahoma territory.  This led me to think some families shouldn’t be allowed to name twins.

13) In recent years, I realized no one can pronounce “Hiram” any longer.  “Eeee-ram,” they say.  Go to any soccer field.  You won’t find families cheering for their little Hirams to score a goal.  It’s a name of the past.

14)My father was an athlete.  Everything about him changed when he was on a sports field.  He looked taller and stronger and more confident, the way he never did at work.  Here’s a story about that — about what I think of as his real life.

15)  Daddy grew up during the Great Depression in a desperately poor family.  His alcoholic father drank away every cent he earned.  When creditors came to the house, my grandmother sent one of her older sons to the front door to say the family had no money to pay their bills.

Because of this background, my father lived in great fear of losing everything.  After he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we took away his wallet, money and credit cards.  Every time he reached for his wallet to pay for something, panic would flood his face.  “Where’s my money?” he asked again and again.  I told him it was all right, that his money was safely hidden away and taken care of.  He was going to be fine.  “Are you sure?” he would ask.

16) The day my father died was a day nothing was right.  I didn’t want to do anything.  I just sat and stared.  Every idea to do anything was bad.  Except for making White Russians, which we did.  I don’t know whether that had something to do with my father or the Big Lebowski.  But it was my one good idea.

17) “I never understood your father,” my husband says.

I think I understood him somewhat.  He never asked for much.  He married a woman he was devoted to, he reached middle-class respectability, he left the memories of a hard childhood far behind.  I think he had what he wanted most in life.  I hope he’s at peace.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

27 comments… add one
  • I’m so sorry for your loss.  My father died with Alzheimer’s about a year ago.  I know exactly what you mean about wondering where he was.  It amazed me that he could not know who I was – his daughter.  My sympathies, Ruth.

  • Ruth, I’m so sorry for your loss. What a moving tribute to your dad.

  • Joyce Link

    Thinking of you, Ruth. I had the exact same reaction when my own dad died nearly 9 years ago…my husband’s words were just incomprehensible. It’s been a long goodbye, I know, but that makes this no easier. You did all you could. You loved each other. That’s all that matters.

  • Paula Link

    Ruth, I’m sorry for your loss too, and that the worst loss occurred years ago. From your writing, I know you know how to mourn. My condolences to you and your family.

  • My deepest sympathies to you and your sister, Ruth. From what you’ve written of your father on various occasions, I have the impression that he was as emotionally closed off as mine was. When my Dad died, both my younger sister and I agreed that we had no idea whether or not he loved us. Believe your sister when she says your father did love you. Like so many men of his generation, he just didn’t know how to say or show it.

  • Ellen Link

    Listen to Tessa.  I know I am right.

  • Cindy A Link

    We are facing Alzheimer’s in our own family, and my hope is the same as yours, Ruth.  May his soul be whole once again, wherever he has gone.  And may you find comfort and peace in knowing that you are the kind of person that any father could be proud of.

  • Well Ruth, I am in tears….what a moving post. Very powerful the way you’ve gone through the points; 1,2,3 and on. The loss of a loved one is a surreal experience and the thoughts that come are insightful, poignant, and beautiful. So beautiful that I will read this post over again as I prepare for the deaths of my two elderly parents.
    I’m sorry for your loss. May your Dad know peace and may you carry the happy memories forward.

  • Winston Link

    Sorry for your loss.  Your status has been altered.  My father died on a Saturday too.  He was 55.  He and Mom had lunch.  He got up to go fetch the dry cleaning.  He got as far as the front door, sat down in a wing chair nearby, and slumped over.  Gone.  I was 22.  Mom died at 70.  I was 38 by then.  No matter my age or what course my own life was on, it suddenly hit me– I’m an orphan.  Suddenly I’m it.  No parental generation to ask questions of or ever fall back on if need be.  How good of your children to remind you emphatically, “We’re adults.  You can lean on us.”  The timeline has suddenly, irrevocably jumped.  You are your parents.  Your children are you.  The next intersection on Highway Life has just been crossed.

  • Deepest sympathies.  As others have said it was a very moving post.  My paternal grandmother (who was like a mother to me) had Alzheimer’s, from age 85 to her death at 93.  We lost her little by little and yes what you say about messing with your concept of a soul is so true.  One of my biggest fears is to disappear the way she did.

  • Paul Link

    Bruce and I do this song.  It is the only thing I can think of for now.

  • Ruth, I’m so sorry to hear this news. What a lovely tribute. Having gone through the arrangements for both my parents, I understand your frustration and the difficulty of dealing with those details at this time.  My heart is breaking for you and yours. Your father was so fortunate to have a daughter like you.       Love

  • Ruth – I’m so sorry about your dad. You’ve expressed your feelings so beautifully here. Your father was lucky to have you as his daughter and I’m sure he loved you deeply but was just unable to show it, as so many men of that generation were.

  • Craig Link

    Your dad came up in our supper conversations.
    My dad loved to talk work at the table no matter
    we did not know who he was talking about- he just talked.
    “That Bum Cowden, he’s a smart man” though I think
    he was just confusing smart with wealthy.
    “Now Speedy Reynolds, you can count on him.”
    For months I thought your dad some noble Irishman,
    “Hiburney” sounded to me a west texas try at Hibernia.
    But eventually we came to understand there was a man
    named Hi Burney as in “that Hi Burney, he’s a good man.”
    Now I can say lots of things about my dad and I did.
    Some of them I am ashamed of.
    But this I know:
    He was a good judge of one’s character.
    If he said Hi Burney was a good man, then
    there it is.

  • Oh Ruth, I wish I could say more than I’m sorry for you and your family. The way you write, I feel like I got it all from every direction in just 1500 words. Even in sadness, you write wonderfully well and communicate it all.

  • Ruth, I am so sorry for your loss. I love your tribute to your father, and, your last paragraph tells what an amazing man he was, and he achieved what most of us want. And through this, he continues to touch and impact others. Thank you for sharing it. Marie

  • Ruth – I’m so very sorry that you lost your dad. I think no matter what our relationships are with our parents, the ground kind of drops away when they die. And no matter how much warning we have that it’s coming, it’s always a surprise. Even if the death itself is not a surprise, our reaction to it is. I wish you all the comfort you need.

  • Steve Link

    What a blessing that your dad was finally able to escape the prison of Alzheimer’s.  Free at last! 

    Fathers are SO important; I just spent four days with 42 incarcerated men, and almost every one of them lacked a positive relationship with either a biological father or a father figure.  I know your dad only through your stories, but I’ve no doubt that you loved each other. 

    This is hard duty.  You are in my prayers.  Consider yourself hugged.

  • So sorry to hear about your loss, Ruth. This post almost made me cry, bringing back the loss of my own parents, 10 and 3 years ago.  They still pop into my mind from time to time.  Missing them never goes away.

  • Oh, man! Ruth, I am so sorry to hear the news. I’ll keep you in my heart. No way around it … grief is a bitch!

  • Ruth,
    that’s a lovely photograph of your dad. I can see the good things about him shining through. thank you for sharing it.
    thinking of you,

  • Ruth, I’m so sad to read this, but I’m glad that you shared it. Relationships with our parents can be so tumultuous, but in the end, they do love us. A friend of mine who lost her parents at a very young age always says that the world is an entirely different place without your parents in it. I think you’ll be happy to be able to reread this someday.

  • Ruth, even in the midst of grief and loss, you write a witty, heart-felt post sans sugar-coating. You’re in my thoughts.

  • Yes, listen to Tessa and to your sister.   And to your kids, and leand on them.
    I am sorry for your loss, and thinking of you.

  • Oh Ruth. This post is amazing. So amazing it is that it could be read from beginning to end–or end to beginning. Which is exactly what grief and shock are like. Everything seems off, wrong, mixed up. Thinking of you and sending love.

  • I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your father. My thoughts (and love) are with you Ruth.

  • Ruth: So very sorry to read about your Dad. My Dad is the same as your was – unable to express his feelings, but I’ve come to accept that he loved me in the only way he could. Now the most important person is you. Be kind to yourself. Your Dad would want it that way. Sending you my love.

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