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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 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 in early 2007, none of us suspected that he had less than two years to live. Hindsight, as they say, is 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 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 else, 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 treat her hurtful words as 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: disagreement was considered 'talking back', and therefore, not allowed. Repercussions were swift and wounding, both physically and emotionally.

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

2008 was a devasting year.  From April to October, Dad suffered multiple psychotic breaks that landed him in the psych ward of a hospital soon after Thanksgiving, seen daily by a psychiatrist. Within two weeks, he was pronounced terminal and put on palliative care.

For the next three weeks, we saw him lose neurological functions daily, things like writing his name, feeding himself, standing, talking, using the toilet, swallowing. The rapid decline was stunning. One day he was walking with a cane; the next day he was in a wheelchair, unable to rise. One day he was talking about going camping and the next day, he couldn't talk at all. He sat in his wheelchair with a tray table, drawing with crayons in a child's coloring book. 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 would soon be surviving only via respirator and feeding machine.

Dad was released to home hospice on December 15th, where he continued to receive palliative care from a visiting nurse until his death two weeks later. If you've never seen someone die that way, it's brutal. On the morning of his death, I lay on the bed next to him and sang Away in a Manger, something he had enjoyed when I was a child.

He died on New Years Eve at 4:30 in the afternoon, just shy of his 75th birthday in January.

It's been more than 15 years, and I still tear up at the memory of his passing.

Regret is a terrible thing to live with.

I wish I had ever 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 My Dad.

I wish I had been able to 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 wish I could tell him I’m sorry for not being able to support him when he needed it most. I wish I could ask his forgiveness.

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

The older we get, the more Father’s Day becomes a double-edged sword: we get closer and closer to realizing we're running out of time with Dad. Sudden terminal illness is a smack in the face, viciously grabbing, taunting us with its inevitability. When that illness involves intense cognitive decline, we are faced with the knowledge that we cannot make up for decades of dysfunction in only a few conversations. Even more traumatic is the knowledge that what we didn't say yesterday will likely not be understood today.

Live and learn, they say.

But then what?

Relationship lessons are the toughest to deal with, because after you’ve learned them, it's often too late to change course.


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