I forgot my father’s birthday this year.
It’s okay, because he’s dead.
I never forgot his birthday when he was alive. Mainly because he reminded me constantly that his birthday was three weeks away… two weeks away… one week away… tomorrow… you get the idea.
He would have been 70 years old on September 17th.
But he expired in January of 2010 at age 67. The current life expectancy for a Canadian: 81. 67… Not a bad run, dad would have thought. He was like that. Never asked for much, except things like justice, respect, silence during CBC News, and a sleeve of golf balls on his birthday.
I forgot his birthday this year because my brain is so preoccupied with work and laundry and work. Or at least I think that’s why I forgot. I forget why I forgot.
Maybe I forgot because somewhere inside me, I’d rather not think about the man that’s not here to see my baby grow into a boy, or read my maniacal musings about motherhood, or call me every single day for no particular reason at all which drove me crazy until I realized there would soon come a time when the phone would stop ringing.
Dad was an eternal optimist, always looking on the bright side of the darkest things. So let’s try that for a second: Maybe there is an upside to going tits-up too early. Maybe expiring prematurely has its benefits. Sounds nuts, I know. Call me crazy, but it’s not so black and white.
On my flight back from Halifax a couple weeks ago, there was an elderly couple sitting in the row behind me on the opposite side of the plane. They must have been 80, at least. How lucky, I thought, as I always do when I see octogenarian duos. How lucky to still have each other. To still both be on this side of the sod. And soaring way above the sod, no less!
But I know, more often than not, it’s not as “side-by-side rocking chairs on the front porch” as I imagine.
I’ve seen The Notebook.
I’ve seen Away From Her.
And everything in the movies is totally true.
I’ve had friends lose parents to Alzheimer’s disease long before they were dead. Just a few days ago, a friend and colleague of mine, Michael Pickard, lost his dad who had suffered from Alzheimer’s for several years. In a beautiful tribute to his father, he wrote:
Due to dad’s Alzheimer’s, we lost him an inch at a time. And it’s only when I reflected as the disease went on did I realize I missed him even when he was right in front of me. I have been missing this humble, clever, precise gentleman bit by bit for several years.
Read the whole story here. Tissues required.
I have several loved ones with parents and grandparents suffering from dementia. Folks who were once wits and writers and knitters and know-it-alls, who now don’t know their own child’s face.
It does not sound like fun.
When I first moved to St. John’s in 2000, I lived in the basement of a couple in their early eighties. In the middle of the night, I’d hear my landlady screaming at her husband, “You son of a bitch! You never touch me anymore!” I was like – Dude, really? You’re like a million years old. He won’t touch you because he might break your hip.
I soon learned that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s. And he was suffering, too.
So I wonder. When your parent lives a long life, but spends the last chapter with mental illness, is that how you remember them when they’re gone? Or do you rewind to how they used to be, their true selves? From what I can gather, you remember how they were at the end, especially if it was an extended period of time. It’s human nature to recall what you experienced last. Same reason Max always chooses the last thing I say, which is why, when I list out his possible dinner choices, I put broccoli at the end.
Maybe it’s different for everyone. Maybe everything is different for everyone.
Anyways. I think there is something to be said for dying young. Not “young young,” but “barely a senior” young. I mean, not that I condone it. Or want it. All I’m saying is – dad departed this earth when he was at the top of his game. In his prime. At his best. (Except for the giant tumor in his bowel.) He is immortalized for me at 67. Too old to be cheated, but young enough to have been of sound mind. (According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, only 2 to 10 per cent of all cases of dementia start before age 65.) When I close my eyes and see my dad, he is strong and vivacious and full of life. Because, save the last two weeks of his life, that is exactly how he was for as long as I can remember.
And those last two weeks don’t count. He did not suffer long, so the heart-wrenching image of him dying has been filed away in a drawer in a cabinet in the back closet in the attic of my mind to make room for the dad that was animated and hilarious and brilliant with eyes bright blue and ever curious. He would want it that way.
Perhaps I am just trying to find something good in the sorrow. Truth is, I would give almost anything to watch his black hair turn to grey. To see that quick walk to church on Sunday mornings slow to a creaky crawl. To see what other books and poems would emerge from his freaky mind; ideas that will never see the light of day now.
If I had the choice, maybe I would even opt to see him lose his marbles. Put his pants on backwards and put his purse in the fridge. And yes, carry around a purse. A bedazzled clutch. If it meant I could have him around a little longer.
I just don’t know. Maybe that’s just selfish.
Or maybe loss is loss. Michael and I lost our dads in totally different ways, at different ages. His at 81, Alzheimers. Mine at 67, cancer. But I bet the dad-shaped hole in each of us feels about the same.
Alas, things are what they are. So, going by dad’s example, I will look at the upside of how it all went down. And be thankful for how I remember him. Like this…
See, thing is, if you knew Jim Combden, you will know his marbles had already scattered. In a good way. Delightfully demented was he. So at least I got to see that, and laugh at that, and love that for 30+ years.
And if you know me, I already know what you’re thinking: The crazy apple doesn’t fall far from the crazy tree. Thank goodness for that.