This is a story about my dad. He has Alzheimer’s. But he is much more than that.
When I was little my parents got divorced and I lived with my mother and my brother lived with my dad mostly. I always idolized my dad. Probably because I didn’t live with him, but he could do no wrong. I got to stay with him every other weekend and on those weekends he spoiled the hell out of me. He would pick me up and would always have a plastic cup with gin and tonic in it. I remember watching it to see if it would spill. It would sit on the console and make it through every turn. I rode in the backseat and would alternate between laying upside down in the seat with my feet in the back window and flipping people off on the freeway. He never got mad at me. I remember being 8 and him handing me a 100 dollar bill and me walking the 10 city blocks to the 7-11 to buy jolly ranchers and Archie comics. We would go to the grocery store and he would have me push the cart and he’d say “ok, put whatever you want in it’. I would fill the cart with chocolate cookies and ice cream and grapes. I have many grocery memories as it was the same each time I saw him. He’d let me eat cereal for dinner. He’d say bachelor living taught him to cook but he really didn’t like to. He made the best spaghetti sauce I’ve ever tasted. He attributed it to growing up in an Italian neighborhood. Told me that his father was friend’s with the Marciano’s and often had dinner together. Back then neighborhood’s were so segregated. He was so tall to me. And his sideburns were awesome. Big 70’s sideburns. My dad was born with really curly hair that he hated. I would watch him blow dry it out straight before anyone ever knew you could do that. He would primp in the mirror while I sat on the floor watching him. He had giant cans of Aqua Net and would shellack his head so nothing would blow around. He always smelled like Old Spice and Aqua Net. Whenever I couldn’t sleep I would climb into bed with him and beg him to change pillows with me. His pillow smelled like him and it put me to sleep. He would lay facing away from me with his arm over his back so I could rub his thumbnail. It had ridges and it was soothing to me. I cherished every moment with him. He was the coolest person I had ever known.
My dad came from a big Irish Catholic family, just as my mom did. I always wondered if they only had me and my brother because of that. His family was poor. Sometimes when he drank too much he would give me tid bits of information from his childhood, but mostly he said he didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to know everything. Him not wanting to tell me had me asking everyone about it. My aunt, one of his sisters, would tell me anything I wanted to know. Then she would say, don’t tell your father. So I had many secrets that I carried. Looking back, what a burden to put on a child, but I think she was trying to please me and she thought I should know about my family history.
As a child my dad wanted to go to be an alter boy. When they told him he was too young, he memorized Masses in Latin and went up to the Sister’s and would recited them. My aunt said they all freaked out and would parade him around while recited prayers and psalms in Latin. He was 5. He had 7 brothers and sisters and was the second to the youngest child. His sisters told me when he was born he was blonde and had violet eyes. Said he was the most beautiful baby anyone had ever seen. When my son was born, his eyes were that violet blue.
His father was a gambler and wasn’t home much. Apparently he was big in the Irish community and had an ego that was large without ever working. People called him names like Boss, and Mayor. My dad fought for his dad’s attention. He told him and his brother that they would wake up to a new bike if they went through this box of old butts and rolled them into cigarettes. My aunt said when they woke up and there was no bike, his brother cried while my dad called him a fucker. His father did things like this to them all the time. I was told that my dad had the mind of a genius, and learned later in life that he was in a way. He did all the math in his head and I would check it on a calculator. He was always right. My son is the same way.
His mother would get up at 4 am to start cooking and cleaning and sewing. My dad idolized his mother. And learned through life experience that he hated his father, but wanted him just the same. One of his older sisters was in charge of the younger kids, and she would tell me stories of them coming home from school and her having him take off his socks and wash them and hang them up for the next day. She said he’d bitch about it and her sister would smack the shit out of him. He’d wait until she was asleep and then blow this old bugle and she would chase him out of the house and around the yard until she caught him, and then she would hit him over the head with it. She said he never cried, he just got even. She told me out of all of the kids, my dad was the smartest and the one who got into the most trouble. When he was a young teen he and his friends would wait outside the pubs and would roll drunks. They cut school and would race cars in the woods and drink. My father dropped out of high school his senior year before graduation. He left because he didn’t have any clothes without holes to graduate in and his sisters said he was embarrassed. Each kid in the family left when they could, and my dad joined the army young. He couldn’t reach the weight requirement so the recruiter told him to go across the street to the market and eat bananas and come back. He ate as many bananas as he could. He would do anything to get in. He made weight barely and joined the Army. He rebelled against Army life and got into trouble all the time. He fought getting his haircut, and said that he won. I used to look through his Army pics for hours, he was so handsome he looked like a movie star to me with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a sneer. His mouth got him into trouble with his superiors and they stationed him in Austria as some kind of punishment. Then we had the Korean war. He said being a smartass punk saved his life.
After the Army my dad raced cars. I have a picture of his car wrecked and upside down after he flew through the windshield and broke his nose. It had a shamrock painted on the side and said Luck O the Irish. I remember looking at that photo as a child and thinking, he’s got the worst luck ever. And I am Irish Too!! I imagined all kinds of terrible things happening to me throughout my life as kids do when they daydream.
My dad built my mom their first home. He was a carpenter/tiler/jack of all trades. He worked and went to night school. When I was a year and half old we moved to the west coast. They left their families behind to start a new life on this coast. My dad’s oldest sister lived in the LA area. She was the only one to leave the east coast before us. So we moved in with them until my parents got their own place. I have early childhood memories of a rooster that lived next door to us attacking me and pecking the shit out of me every time I went outside and riding a horse down the street. Very random memories.
There did come a time when I realized my dad was just a human being like everyone else. I was 18 and at my cousin’s wedding. At the after party after the reception (yah, the Irish do party) she decided to tell me all kinds of stories about my father. I guess she thought I was a grown up because I was of age and had a child. But I remember sitting on a pillow on her living room floor with a smile that I new I had to keep on, and in my mind I was crying. He IS human after all. I wanted to adore him forever. I didn’t want to know of anything that he had done that would tarnish his superpowers in my eyes. But, then I knew. He is just a man. A man who is my father.
Throughout the years my dad has been my biggest champion. We had more than our fair share of fights. As I became a woman he wanted me to stay a child I think. He didn’t want to let me go. Yet, no matter what kind of situation I got myself into, and there were many, he was always there. And he would always hug me and tell me, I love you tuke, no matter what. Our relationship actually got closer as I moved farther away from him. I didn’t think I could do it, but I surprised myself and picked up and left state. I talked to him every night on the phone and he assured me I did the right thing by leaving my old life behind. Said we all need to do that sometimes. Before I left he wanted me to follow in his footsteps and be a businesswoman phenom. But all I wanted to do was be a nurse. He told me I was better than that. He didn’t understand I didn’t care about money. I wanted to help people. He kept threatening to buy companies and have me run them. Told me I better get my business degree. He’d always say, you can do anything. If you don’t know anything about it, bullshit them and then learn and keep going up and up. That’s exactly what he did. He is a high school dropout who bullshited his way in and made it to the top. He fooled them all, but he earned it because he learned and made it. It was a time in our relationship where all we did was yell at each other. He is a stubborn man and he taught me well. I’d tell him I learned from the best and would throw his arms up because he knew I was right. I was so much like him, it infuriated him.
When we first found out he had Alzheimer’s he wouldn’t accept it. He would not take the medicine and he lived with me. I would beg him, yell at him, plead with him. No. He refused to accept it. It was a an awful time for everyone. I couldn’t accept that he had it either. But it became apparent. I had to be the parent. I had such a hard time letting go of the image of my big strong dad, and realize once again that he is just human, like me. And he needed me. I took care of him daily for about 4 months and I finally ended up getting on my knees and crying, begging him to please take the medicine. He just stared at me with vacant eyes. I knew then that I was losing him. But this disease, takes you so slowly and painfully. It is taking the essence of who he is, and replacing it with random bits and pieces amplified. It’s like it takes the worst parts of you in your soul, and blows them up.
A couple of years ago after a dementia episode he came over and sat on my couch and cried. I cried too before he even spoke. I wish I could just pull this awful disease out of his brain, and that he doesn’t have to suffer with his thoughts anymore. He told me that day, he said things were happening in his mind but he was still in there and he could see it all like an outsider and it scared the shit out of him and we cried. I was so angry with him. I didn’t tell him that but his stubbornness might have accelerated the illness because it took so long for him to start taking the meds that might have slowed it down.
All of this and so much more is in my thoughts all the time now. He came over for dinner with me the other night and we had such a good time talking. About an hour into it I realized that he didn’t know I was his daughter. He started telling me stories about me and I just nodded and smiled. I used to try and get him to know who I was until I realized that’s probably not good for him. After my son walked him back across the street I got into bed and cried. It was so good to be with him, I miss him so much. But when I’m with him I miss him even more. My husband came into our room shortly after he left and said your dad is here and wants to show you something. I got out of bed and he had this paperwork in a plastic sleeve. He told me to pull it out and he had this wicked grin on his face. It was a promotion letter making him Director Worldwide of the company. He was smiling so big and he had his eyebrows raised like eh?? eh?? So I smiled and said, yah I know Dad. You are amazing. He told me he would make copies for me and I watched him walk back across the street so slowly and hunched over.
I know that he was trying to tell me he did it. His measure of success was to rise out of poverty and ‘make it’. And he did. I know that he was a man who did many things in his life, some good, some bad, but he loved my brother and I first and foremost and always made sure we knew it. He was a successful dad. One opposite of his own father. I wish I could have told him this before when he would have understood.