Before He Slips Away

Received a phone call from sis on Friday. The results of the PET scan had come in. They brought confirmation of what we had strongly suspected but fervently hoped against.

Dad, on the threshold of 78, is also in the first stages of Alzheimers.

Here on this Father’s Day, may I tell you a little about my dad?

He earned a Master’s Degree in Biology from the University of Oklahoma. Until he retired in 1984, he was a college professor, the head of the Biology Department at a small state college in Southeastern Oklahoma.

Yes, he retired early. He said teaching had stopped being fun because it seemed fewer and fewer students were actually interested in learning anything. He was 54 when he quit. (Dear God, in seven years I’ll be the same age he was when he walked away.) But over the years I’ve come across dozens of former students who told me he was the finest teacher they’d ever had.

When I was a kid, taking the bus out to his campus office after school was an exotic adventure. His classroom featured, beakers and test tubes, a huge Anaconda skin, an old wasps nest the size of a German Shepherd, slimy stuff in aquariums, and unspeakable things in jars of formaldehyde. To me and my friends, Dad wasn’t a mere science teacher. He was a “scientist” and, in my mind, one of the smartest men in the world.

As long as I can remember, Dad has been obsessed with crossword puzzles. He’s long been able to work the New York Times crossword in short order. Until recently, anyway. A quiet, soft-spoken man, it’s always been ironic that a person of so few words should know so many.

Oh, yes. Words.

About a year ago, we started noticing Dad struggling to find the one he was looking for. It was usually a noun that seemed so elusive. Just here and there at first, he would not be able to come up with what a certain, common thing was called.

In an especially poignant irony, the first occasion I really noticed this development, Dad was telling me about a gentleman in their church:

Dad: We got some bad news the other day about old Mr. so and so. He’s got. . . He has . . . oh, what’s the name of that thing old people get where they can’t remember anything?

Me: Alzheimer’s?

Dad: Yeah, that’s it. He has Alzheimer’s.

The missing nouns problem has gotten gradually worse over the last year and has, on bad days, made communication a challenge for Dad. Because his speech pathways have really been the only point of attack, he has been fully and painfully aware of what is happening to him. It’s been a year of frustration, discouragement, and embarrassment.

Exposing Dad to additional embarrassment is the last thing I want to do, so I won’t elaborate. (Dad doesn’t read blogs so he won’t be reading this.) The fact is, he is bearing his present circumstances with extraordinary grace and peace.

On my last trip home, we took a drive into town. Dad, who in my lifetime has never wanted to talk about anything personal or sensitive, took the opportunity to talk to me about what he was facing. No, he hadn’t received the definitive diagnosis yet, but he knew:“I just want you to know I’m not upset or sad about what’s happening to me,” Dad told me. “I’m not asking, ‘Why me?’ I been on the receiving end of too many blessings that I didn’t deserve to complain about this. It just is what it is.”

Of course, barring something miraculous, some of the most trying and heartbreaking days ahead will be faced by my mom. She was the one who, before my sister called, had tried to tell me what the doctor had said about the PET scan. Out of a 20-minute flurry of medical jargon and diagnosis and prognosis, Mom could remember only one phrase the doctor had delivered:

“Well, it looks like we’re slipping away.” he’d said.

Yes, it would appear so. But not yet. We have some time.

Time to say things you’ve wanted to say but haven’t because that’s just not what we do in our family. Things like:

“Thanks for always making sure we all had good cars and insurance and gas credit cards while you drove beaters for decades.”

“And for never once taking any of the golden opportunities I presented to berate or browbeat or second-guess or say ‘I told you so.'”

“You need to know that you did a good job. No, you weren’t perfect. You’re as flawed and damaged as the rest of us. But you got the big things right. And a lot of the little ones, too.”

“And by the way, did you know that there has never been a single day of my life that I haven’t been proud that you’re my dad?”

“And one more thing. . .some words I honestly don’t think I’ve said to you since I got too big to kiss you and Mom goodnight before running off to bed. . . I love you, Dad.”

So, I’ll sieze the precious time we have. And I’ll say what ought to be said.

Before he slips away.