Children don’t think of their parents as human. They are your super heroes. The ones you can always go to for advice. The people who are always there for you when the going gets tough and it seems like nobody is on your side. That’s why I had a shock the last time I visited my 88 year old father. I knew he was old. I knew he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. I knew that his memory was getting worse and worse. But, in my child’s mind, perhaps I didn’t expect his condition to deteriorate so fast. Maybe I fantasized that I would always have him – at least for a little longer.
He was always the strongest and the smartest man I ever knew. Proud, intelligent, and a great provider for our family. During my teenage years, when things became difficult, he was always there for me, guiding the way. At times, we had our troubles. He was tough, and always expected a lot from me. But it made me stronger, and I always knew that he loved me. After I grew up, I was lucky to develop an adult relationship with him. A different one than the one I had with him as a child.
On my last visit to dad, he was in a hospital bed in the guest room of his home. Hospice nurses and aides were coming every day to help his dear wife, who stayed by his side, taking care of him, and slept in the bed next to him at night. It was then that reality stung me hard and I realized that this relationship with my father was in its final days on earth.
Sitting across from him while he was slipping in and out of sleep, I remembered all the stories he had told in the beginning stages of his disease. My dad was never a talker before, but for the past six or seven years or so, he had been belting out the old stories with more fervor than ever before. Even when he couldn’t remember what he had just said, or had repeated himself, those old stories still came out. Short term memory is the first thing to go with Alzheimer’s patients. I had been living overseas for many years, but had always made it a point to visit my dad as often as I could, and I would sit in the reclining chair in his living room for hours on end during every visit, listening to the same stories I had heard a million times, with a few new ones thrown in every once and a while, maybe to make sure I was still listening.
One of those stories I recalled while I spoke to him in the twilight between dreams and consciousness was the “last talk.” His grandmother was an avid movie buff. When her husband passed away, her biggest regret was that she never had the “last talk.” That talk that a dying character has with his or her loved one in the end of a good tear-jerking movie. She was always upset that she had never had that “last talk” with her husband. My dad explained to her, “Grandma, this is life. Last talks don’t happen in life. Only in the movies.”
The bittersweet melancholy of the moment hit me when I realized I was never going to see my dad again. It made me sad, but, at the same time, I was happy for the opportunity to have the “last talk” that so many people never have the chance to have, including my great grandmother. My dad was at the point where he didn’t remember hardly anyone or anything in his life. But, he knew who I was and he knew who my brother was. We talked about what was happening in my life. I told him about the last book I had published. “It’s called Terror on Wall Street, dad, and we wrote it together, you and me.” He responded, “Oh, yeah?” He asked his wife, Becky, to bring him one of my books, and held it in his hands and looked at the cover and the back for a long time before he drifted off to sleep again. I told him it was good to see him, and he said, “It’s good to see you, too.”
I was only able to spend the day with my dad. Circumstances beyond my control called for me to return home immediately. As the time clicked on, I held his hand. I put lotion on his arm, which was dry and itchy. I helped him drink juice and eat a few bites of pizza. Then, I realized that our time was up. It was time for that “last talk.” So, I just told him everything I could think of, a stream of consciousness. “I have to go now, dad, but I’ll call you when John comes to visit. Thank you for everything you did for me. Thank you for always being there for me when I needed you. I love you, dad.” He said, “I love you, too.” There was so much more that could be said, but it all boiled down to the emotion, the love. Those were the things he could understand more than the words I had used to express them. “Bye, dad.”
As I left the house, the sun was setting over Lake Havasu. I had always enjoyed and appreciated the brilliant and changing colors of every sunset, but they soon fade from memory. This one was special. I remembered the movie, With Honors, where Joe Pesci’s character picks up a rock, associates it with the memory of that moment, and saves it. This sunset was my “rock.” The memory I will always associate with the sunset of my father’s life.