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Life Lessons from Father's Day

When you’ve lost a father who loved and was loved, this becomes a difficult day. As the years pass, the pain lessens, but the difficulty remains, particularly if you felt that you lost not only the man but also the opportunity to tell him, when he was able to understand, how much he meant to you.

Life lessons can be the hardest to deal with, an irony because they are also among the most important. Communication from the heart was a near impossibility in the family I grew up in, due chiefly to my mother’s unhealthy influence on all of us, including my father. As a result, none of us ever said what mattered to each other, living instead in a superficial world of forced nicety.

When my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s dementia around 2007, none of us suspected that he had less than two years to live. Hindsight, as they say, is close to 20/20, so it’s pretty easy to flail myself that I didn’t immediately try to get closer to Dad when his decline began. Instead, I lived in denial, partly because my mother (who had never been particularly kind to him) chose to treat his illness as if it were his own fault and an actual choice on his part. For the entirety of our lives, my siblings and I were painfully aware that everything was about her, so anything that detracted from pandering to her, such as the illness of someone who needed care and compassion, was an instant inconvenience and treated with hostility.

As a result, being around either of my parents became intolerable. It is excruciating to watch a once-strong and mentally sound man begin to slip while his mate harangues him daily. We had grown up used to our mother’s sharp tongue, but our father had handled it always with a strong sense of humor, choosing to behave as if her hurtful words were more teasing than torment. He was the butt of her “jokes” on every occasion, and we all just went along with it because you never countermanded Mother. Even in my forties, I was still controlled by the constraints of my youth: talking back was not allowed. The repercussions were swift and devastating, both physically and emotionally.

Dementia is a cruel master; the decline of the brain means that at any moment, you can lose the ability to communicate as a sentient human. For our dad, it was especially cruel, for it turned out that he suffered not only from the kind of dementia that wavers in its effect (some days are good and some are bad), but also was beset by a neurological deterioration that my sister believes was Lewy Body Dementia, which is even worse.

2008 was a devasting year for our family. From April to October, my dad suffered multiple psychotic breaks that eventually landed him in the psych ward of a hospital. He was not released until home hospice care was recommended, by which time he was confined to a wheelchair and unable to perform any functions on his own. He died on New Year’s Eve, never seeing his 75th birthday in January of 2009.

For the four weeks prior to his death, we saw him lose neurological functions daily, things like writing his name, feeding himself, standing, talking, using the toilet, swallowing. It became obvious that our dad suffered from something far more sinister than previously diagnosed. Something was killing his brain at a rate that meant he would either be a complete vegetable very soon, or dead.

Regret is a terrible thing to live with. I wish I had had a conversation with my father that went beyond the annual Hallmark card sharing the usual sentiments: Best Dad Ever, I Love You Forever, Thanks for Being There. If I could sit down with him now, I would tell him that he was a good dad because he instilled in me a strong work ethic and the ability to appreciate the joy of accomplishment. I would share my own insecurities about being a parent and ask how he was able to do it so well. I would tell him I’m sorry for not being able to support him adequately when he needed it most.

I can’t do that. My opportunity is long gone.

Father’s Day as a holiday is a double-edged sword; it’s nice to set aside a day to honor the person who helped bring you into this world. But if that is the sum total of how we communicate our feelings, we’re missing the point of relationship, which is a 365-day-a-year commitment.

As I said, life lessons can be the toughest to deal with, because after you’ve learned them, sometimes it’s too late to change course.

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