The Last Father’s Day?

A few weeks ago we received a diagnosis for my father that came as no big surprise, but as with all major medical issues, the finality of the diagnosis landed heavily.  My dad has Alzheimer’s.   I believe we received this diagnosis late.  He has been dealing with memory loss and other symptoms for a couple of years.  My dad is somewhere in stage 4, headed to stage 5 (stages from the Alzheimer’s Association).

My dad in April on his 77th birthday

There’s a better than average chance that this will be his last Father’s Day.  I fairly certain he’ll live more than another year, but I doubt he will remember much of Father’s Day after this year.  He has already forgotten the appointment with the neurologist at which he and my stepmother were informed of the Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

I’ve always had a tough time with Father’s Day.  Honestly, like many sons and fathers, my father and I had a difficult relationship.  My father could be verbally abusive and was always tended toward the self-absorbed.   My parents divorced when I was ten.  I remember reading once that this was just about the worst age to be when your parents split up.  My overriding memories of my father when I was young were being yelled at and spanked/hit/abused with a belt.  Other overriding memories include spending an hour at an ice cream parlor the night my little league team won a championship, aching to celebrate with my teammates, but instead having to listen to a lecture about how I threw behind the runner in the fourth inning.   I knew even at ten years old that my dad didn’t quite “get” how to be a father.    It was difficult having this guy for parent.  I know he wasn’t the worst; my luck in the parent department could have been worse, indeed.

To his credit, my father didn’t move away out of town after my parents divorced. He always made the child support payments.  He was a great teacher (a former student who loved him, just loved him seem to pop up everywhere) and an artist. Yet, all too often he was still emotionally or physically absent. Across town might as well have been across the country all too often.

Yours truly as a boy with a flower, painted by my father, from an actual photograph

Yet, there would always be “some day” to fix the relationship, mend the hurts, correct the mistakes.  Some day has come. This is the last Father’s Day.  I will try to get my dad on Skype later today.  He and wife just got their first computer a couple of weeks ago.  I wonder if, in large part, it’s because my sister and I live so far away.  Tomorrow he may not remember the call.  A year from now, it is a lot less likely he will remember today’s call or even the one we make next Father’s Day.

During the majority of my adult life and years of therapy, I watched my relationship with my father influence so much in my own life, such as being overly sensitive to criticism, always seeming to have to overcome a low sense of self-esteem and being an over-achiever (I need to write a book on when overachievers are under-employed).  Throughout my adulthood I have wondered if my father was or is or would ever be happy.  There was so much sadness in his life, so much anger, so much loss.  He never got counseling, never admitted to being needy, never wanted any help.   He was orphaned at four, his first stepmother died when he was ten and the next stepmother when he was 18.  He only ever seemed to have one close friend, a guy he went to high school with and whom he visited often.

I don’t think we ever completely make peace with childhood trauma, imperfect parents, or damaging relationships.  I don’t think we ever truly “let them go.”  What I think happens, as has happened and is happening with me is that we learn to not let the past ruin today.

My father was a fan of Glen Campbell in the Rhinestone Cowboys heyday.   (The music I picked up from my father was Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Buddy Holly, Glen Campbell and John Denver.)  About a year ago, last Father’s Day more or less, the news came out that Glen Campbell has also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  I sent my father a copy of the issue of Rolling Stone where Campbell and his wife discuss their battles with the disease (battles so like my stepmother is now recounting to us), and perhaps most poignantly, Campbell’s decision to make one last record and go on one last tour before he could no longer remember the words.

My prayer today is for all sons and fathers who know that Father’s Day is nothing like the Hallmark advertizing tells you it is.  Let’s be real, many were the years when I couldn’t stomach the annual ritual of getting the Father’s Day card because none of them reflected my reality.  My prayer today is that all those fathers and sons find peace and healing. I know it’s needed because I am one of them.  I pray we all end up in a better place.

2 thoughts on “The Last Father’s Day?

  1. Tony, my dad also has dementia. He lives in a world of anxiety and confusion. He knows all the people in his life, which is a blessing, but forgets things he did five minutes before. I was lucky-my dad was a good dad. He was loving and generous, but it was from him that I inherited my propensity for depression and anxiety. He suffered from it off and on his whole life. He does not realize it’s Father’s Day. He forgets two minutes after you tell him. He finds no joy in opening gifts. Tony, I appreciate your heartfelt and honest portrayal of why Father’s Day can be difficult. Even though I had a close relationship with my dad and still do today, I am sad because I remember the vital, funny, caring man he was.I watch my mother, almost 85, have to take care of her husband who all her life took care of her. I t hurts my heart when he says, “Amy, help me, don’t let anything happen to me.” I promise him I won’t. But something is happening to him and he knows it. I remember when he reassured and protected me. So Father’s Day is hard even for me, although I get to celebrate the greatest man in my life. I worry he won’t be here next Father’s Day. I worry that he will. Tony, you have had the chance to be a great dad and you are. Take pride in your relationship with your son. I still miss you. O’Boy.

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