On Sunday, we had Haley's birthday dinner. It's our tradition that for the kids' birthdays, we have both sets of grandparents come for dinner. The birthday girl/boy gets to choose the menu. I love this tradition we've developed, and the kids do, too; they look forward to it for most of their birthday month and there is much time spent discussing what they want to eat. For Haley's dinner, she chose her absolute favorite thing lately, my pasta salad. We had Caesar salad (another of her favorites) and chicken salad sandwiches, too. Definitely a salad-rich meal!
When we were outside on the patio eating dessert (Key lime bars instead of the traditional cake; I spelled out the "Happy Birthday" with whipped cream), I found myself staring at my dad. His Alzheimer's has manifested itself in silence; he very rarely says a word. But when I'd handed him his plate, he'd said "thank you, Amy." And he looked me right in the eye. I started to wonder: who is he, now? Or maybe the right question is where is he now? I have this image of his psyche as a sort of wilderness, crowded with trees and cliffs and a tangle of trails, each of them leading nowhere. But in that image, his soul is curled up, a cat in a soft bed of ferns, comfortable and quiet while his mind wanders. As I watched him eat his dessert, I wondered: what does it feel like to be him? Is this image I've created for myself anywhere close---is there a spot in him of peacefulness amid all the confusion and horrible silence? He looked up and caught my eye again, and he didn't look away, but he didn't really look, either. Our gaze, between two sets of brown eyes, was a one-way path. Nothing came back from him, and all I could do to not cry was to remember that he still knows my name.
Those few quick moments of looking into my dad's eyes have got me really thinking about him this week. My dad was far from the perfect dad. In our family, my mom was the go-getter. She made things happen, while my dad seemed just along for the ride. I have very few memories of him doing stuff with me. He took me fishing once at Deer Creek. He taught me how to water ski (I never trusted anyone else but my dad to pull me on water skis). He took me and Becky to the library. But he wasn't the kind of dad who helped with homework, or sat down and talked to me just to talk (until we were older), or took me with him to the hardware store. He never taught me to throw a football or catch a baseball. And he made quite a few bad financial decisions, which had enormous impacts on my own decisions.
But despite his shortcomings, he still managed to teach me things. I credit him with my love of reading, and he's half responsible for my love of flowers (the other half came from my Grandpa Fuzz). He liked to take pictures, and so do I. There's also a way of looking at the world that I think comes from my dad. Plus, my dad was an A/V geek. He had an enormous stereo, with speakers both upstairs and downstairs. I remember boyfriends admiring that stereo. I also remember the great Beta vs. VHS debate. In our house, it came down on the side of Beta, so my family was among those people in the late 80s who only got to rent a select few videos, the ones that came out in Beta. (That Beta player is still in my parents' basement, by the way. If you were curious.) We could listen to our Beta movies through the speakers instead of just through the TV. We had a custom stereo installed in our (very old) boat, too. We'd be hanging out under a shady overhang in Lake Powell with the stereo booming, his musical choices bouncing off the sandstone.
I didn't ever appreciate his stereo obsessions and possessions, though, because I was always so annoyed with his taste in music. What trying-to-be-cool teenager wants to listen to Kenny Rogers or Roger Whittaker? The always-dreaded "Put Another Log on The Fire"? Or the very special women in our musical heritage, Dolly Parton and the Mandrell sisters? Seriously. I hated his music. But here is a confession: I never minded Neil Diamond. (That's harder to admit to than liking Richard Marx.) "America" sounded especially impressive in the Lake Powell sandstone acoustics.
So last night, when the American Idol people sang the Neil Diamond songs? Here's another confession: I knew every single song. Even the ones David Cook sang. I watched the entire show. I sang along (much to Kendell's surprise) and then I got in the tub and had a good cry. Because I realized: I never told my dad I didn't mind Neil Diamond. I never told him I was grateful for that enormous stereo and the cool-with-boys status those huge speakers gave me. He doesn't know that part of the reason I still listen to music almost as much as I did as a teenager is because of his example. And that's just the beginning of a long, long list I could write, a catalog titled "what I should have told Dad." He doesn't know the things I am still deep-down angry over, or the things I have long-since forgiven him for. I never told him what I admired about him or what I wish he would have changed. I never even apologized for all my adolescent shenanigans.
And that is what I hate most about this disease: having a diminishing version of this person you love, watching him vanish by fractions, but he's still here, his brown eyes staring back at you with an awful blankness. Is this horrible to say? But if he were dead, I could imagine him at peace. I could have conversations with him in my head and imagine he could hear them. If he were gone I could picture his spirit as something more than a cat curled up in ferns. I could know he was doing something besides simply lingering on the edge of things. Out of all the baggage that comes with Alzheimer's, the worst thing is having this man sitting at my outdoor table eating dessert, knowing he looks like my father but no longer is my father. Knowing that my idyllic soul-setting is probably nothing close to the truth, is a construct for my own sense of peace, and that probably his sense of self---his soul---is a tormented and confused psychic scrap. Knowing I am helpless to do anything but watch the decline and wish I had even once just opened my mouth and told him what I wish he knew now.