The hints and clues are there. They pop-up in the periphery of my mind quite often, but I’ve done a good job of pushing them aside.
Because, it’s a hard pill to swallow. One I’m not sure I’m ready to take.
It’s a reality I’m not sure I’m equipped to handle emotionally – for myself, let alone my family.
It’s a reality where the realization is only the beginning of a long road that comes with multiple stages of grief.
The presence of Alzheimer chipping away at my dad is starting to become a visible reality.
For the last two years, since his diagnosis, it’s been a presence that would occasionally show up, much like a fly that finds its way indoors in the summer. It wouldn’t last long enough to make a lasting impression of its presence.
But that presence hangs thick now, a fog that fills the room and doesn’t dissipate.
I’m afraid to look. I’m not ready to accept a reality where my dad isn’t there.
And that’s what’s hardest about all of this. He’ll still be here, in physical form, for a long time.
But the man I know, the one who showed me what it means to be a man, a father and a husband, who laid my foundation, that part slips away first.
That part of him is already slipping away.
Change is coming.
Or rather it’s here.
And the time I have left with him is both heavy and diminishing. The elephant in the room and a tension to sit in the present and soak up every second and ignore the stupid fucking elephant.
I sift, frantically, through my memories.
Pace between the towering shelves in my mind that store the catalog of memories. I move quickly between the boxes, combing through them, desperate to find the right one.
Time is running out.
To find a way to remember him as he was, a memory to give me solace as his present state deteriorates – when the weight of it is too much to bear.
To find the one memory I can hold on to the tightest. To hold it high above all others. The one memory that gives me the precious gift of a story that beautifully captures his essence.
So that I may tuck it away in a part of my brain to display it on a marquee. Put it somewhere to be prominently featured, ready to recall at a moment’s notice.
A story that I may retell to my daughters when they’re older. When they ask about him because their memories have gone fuzzy, blurred around the edges.
A memory to recount with my brother and sister, long after he’s gone. A story that lets us travel back in time, if only but for a moment, and re-experience his larger than life presence.
And we’ll laugh and feel joy, tinged with the bittersweet pain that comes from realizing we can’t stay in the memory. We have to return to the present day, and doing so means crossing the chasm of suffering where we exist and he no longer does.
A story I recall when I need an ideal to aspire towards. When faced with a moral dilemma, to serve as the guiding star. The anchor in my mind, that points towards the choice that serves others with humanity and dignity.
The story that flashes a memory of childhood. A lifetime of adventures colored by the optimism of a happy upbringing. A memory of him coming home from work and radiating joy, as if he’d been away for months, to see us. A cherished moment to recreate with my own daughters.
An instance where he put his relationship with my mother first, above all other things. An act of selfless, unconditional love. An act of what a single instance of devotion to another human looks like so that I can apply to my marriage, ensuring it’s built to last.
There was also his commitment to never shy away from tough conversations. Even if that meant trapping a pre-teen version of me in the car en route to guitar lessons so he could talk to me about masturbation and all the awkward things that come with becoming a blossoming teen boy. If ever there was a time I wish I could have hit eject and jettisoned my body from a moving vehicle, that was it.
But, I realize the search is futile. There isn’t one flawless singular memory that can capture him perfectly. There is no story that fits neatly into a single narrative.
Life isn’t a movie.
There is no montage of memories scored to music that swells in sync with the groundswell of emotions as they peak.
Life doesn’t happen that perfectly.
Instead, I’m left to curate a folder of his greatest hits.
So that his presence may remain long after he’s gone. And the stories don’t fade away.
So I can remember the lessons I carry with me, the ways I live to honor him and he shines brightest through me.
And yet, I wonder (or fear)…will the image of the dad I have in these memories hold?
Or will they be replaced by the image of my dad as he deteriorates – as his mind gives up on him and he can no longer care for himself?
Will all these memories be marred by the hellish road that awaits us? The road I hope I’m strong enough to face.
…but if there is one thing, one lesson that outshines all others, that I’ve learned from my dad, it’s that a life of purpose isn’t built when things are easy. It’s defined by the challenges we overcome. And we must never shy away just because something is difficult.
So, I’ll lean in. For you, dad.
At some point, the search for a life of purpose comes to an end of its journey and you’ve either lived with purpose or you haven’t.
Thank you for living yours beautifully.
Thank you for the stories.
I hold on to them in hopes to do the same.