When her husband died, my great aunt spoke to me about her grief, but also her relief. For a year after the stroke, she watched her partner of six decades fade away. He was bedridden and nonverbal. There was no hope of recovery. His passing was a weight lifted from her chest.
In the same sense, dad’s passing is both heartbreaking and cathartic.
Dad was diagnosed with dementia at 57. From there, watching his five-year decline was a horror. He lost his short-term memory and his sense of time. He became increasingly apathetic and sedentary. He stopped speaking. He stopped blinking.
It was impossible to know how much of him was left. Half of me ate lunch with him on Tuesdays, to give him the best possible quality of life. The other half hoped it didn’t matter – that he was already gone. I can’t imagine anything more crushing than being aware of your own mind unwinding.
With his passing, the emotional logjam has loosened, and I can try to make peace with the loss. “Dad” can be the man in my childhood memories – not the empty-eyed body across the table, unable to chew its own pasta.
I remember when dad taught me to ride a bike. Well, maybe “taught” is too generous. He took off the training wheels, lifted me onto the seat, and gave me a push. Not long after that, I remember him letting me steer as I sat in front of him on a snowmobile. I gunned it and almost ran us into a tree.
Dad pushed Joey and me to be handy and outdoorsy… with mixed results. I was never particularly interested in cars, boats, or camping. The pocket knives and bike tools he bought me were rarely used. But we connected on stereo equipment, pinewood derby cars, and rare earth magnets. We played games, too – dad didn’t like computer games, since “every possibility has already been solved,” but we played Risk, foosball, and chess.
From time to time we would go swimming off the boat, or throw a ball around, but what I remember more are all the times dad encouraged my pursuit of math and science. He took us on a tour of a plant he did business with, and I remember being fascinated watching aluminum discs get punched into beer cans. He showed me the bright, smelly pools used for electroplating machine parts. He talked to me about the magnetic fields simulated by his CAD software.
Dad started college as a chemistry major. After a year or two, he told me, the dean “suggested” he take some time off from school. It may have had something to do with that time a fraternity left a keg out in the snow overnight, and dad and his buddies stole (and drank) it.
He eventually went back, and graduated with a degree in history. I found his knowledge useful for papers in high school – we talked about protectionism in the steel industry and the circumstances of Israel’s formation – but as a child I always thought it was strange to go from history to industrial manufacturing. Appropriately enough, I now work in tech, and read more about history and politics than I do about anything else.
I don’t remember dad ever staking out political positions, but he definitely had a subversive side. In 2008, we watched from his roof as a barbed wire fence went up around the RNC. The next day, we got takeout from a falafel restaurant that had been conspicuously excluded from the convention zone – then wandered around, noting loudly how good it was.
I have contradictory memories about dad and food. On one hand, I remember him being a picky, predictable eater. He always had his pancakes with real maple syrup (which the rest of us were not allowed to touch). His toast was always the same cinnamon-raisin bread. He didn’t like cucumbers, mushrooms, or leftovers. On the other hand, I remember him taking us to all sorts of different hole-in-the-wall restaurants along University Ave and West 7th, from Thai to barbecue to pho.
Dad traveled a lot for work – sometimes over 100k miles per year – and he wasn’t afraid to flex his frequent flyer status. On family trips, he would sometimes bump me or Joey up to the first class cabin. While I was studying abroad in Budapest, he somehow finagled a day-long layover there on his way home from a trade show. We visited the castle district and soaked in the steam baths.
Dad told us stories about all the jobs he’d held. He parked cars when he was twelve, he said, and would speed them up and down the length of the block. He drove a taxi, and would tip himself a twenty if he had to drag a passed-out client up onto their porch.
When Joey and I were too young to get real jobs, he found little bits of work for us at the machine shop. I scrubbed the old gray sink until it was white, and used a crowbar to move concrete stops in the lot. We sold parking for games and concerts at the Xcel; sometimes dad would have to soothe hot tempers after Joey and I parked cars in a little too tight.
Dad knew how to talk to people. He always seemed comfortable and confident, even in a crowd of strangers. He negotiated with the shady Craigslist dealer who sold me my first car, and charmed the elderly landlady who rented me my first apartment.
My last memory of dad, when he was still lucid, has the two of us standing in my apartment on Franklin. He had just helped me with something – maybe moving furniture, or buying insurance, or figuring out taxes. As he was leaving, he told me that he loved me.
I didn’t question that he loved me, but it was unusual for him to say so. I almost asked him if everything was alright.
That would have been about a year before the diagnosis. Subtle behavior changes had already started. But if he knew something was wrong, I never saw another indication.