This has been one of the most trying experiences of my life – more so than my own health escapades.
Writing about it – though cathartic – has been equally challenging.
When my father was diagnosed last November with Alzheimer’s , I began to write a lot, chronicling what transpired, how in the span of 6 months, both of my parents moved to a nursing home. These detailed accounts about the time that Dad lived with us – the changes, the challenges —flowed onto the page with ease. But when I began to write a Father’s Day essay, I was confronted with a tidal wave of emotions, eliciting an endless stream of tears. The sobbing would cease shortly after I stepped away from the computer, but return in a deluge when I began to write again. There’s much I have yet to work through in accepting my father’s diagnosis. *Pause for tears*
You see, my father has always been the rock, a steadfast beacon of our family, straddling oceans and seas and continents, keeping his ever-growing family connected – and some, for a time, alive.
Growing up, I loved my dad as every little girl does, though I fought his Old World ideas. I never really understood him, until as an adult, I reconnected with my roots and began regular travels to Greece. Everything I learned about his life made me love him more. Things made sense; I felt a greater connection between us. With a mom who was disconnected and a dad who worked day and night, I gravitated toward my grandmother, however, these events bonded me and my father.
Writing this essay under normal circumstances would be a piece of cake – the only challenge being word count – but Alzheimer’s provokes emotions; complex, intricate feelings that aren’t easily confronted, processed or shared. There are no words – perhaps not yet – to properly express them.
I began to write, under the title, “Mourning a Father Who Still Lives.” That seemed to sum it up, if it’s possible, because as he declines, we lose another part of him. Some 6,000 words later in several versions – one recounting the events that I now realize were the onset of Alzheimer’s some 21 years ago, to anger at my mother’s treatment of him through the years, to trying to sum up the many lessons my always-working-dad imparted through his example. Too wordy, too personal. Would it be humiliating for my parents? Best to leave it all in the past. It doesn’t serve anyone.
I wondered: should I then write about my dad’s life – the son of a poor farmer, born in a small mountain village in Greece, and raised through the ravages of WWII and the Greek Civil War… a boy who’s education was disrupted then halted by war, who went to work to support his family… a young man who left everything behind, and with $9 in his pocket set sail for a strange land, with hopes of earning enough money to keep his family alive – through some very lean decades –and whatever else happened, would happen… a man who through hard work and sheer determination became a successful restaurateur who not only saved his family from starvation and set them on to better lives, but nurtured a family here in the States… an easy-going, simple man, generous to a fault, who gave of himself freely, and never asked for anything in return… a man who was loved by all, understood by few…a man who when he became a grandfather fought to change diapers, because he’d missed out on much of his children’s childhoods, and wanted to be a part of everything…who when his wife became ill, cared for her every whim with his characteristic zeal and never complained…
…who due to actions certainly caused by Alzheimer’s seeds, lost two businesses, his home, his self-worth, pride, and on some days, his will to live, each day lamenting the loss of his hard-earned labors, and increasingly feeling he was no longer worthy of life… with no purpose, no work, and a wife in poor health who went to live in a nursing home, who moved in with her just 6 months later…
That last paragraph… Hard to believe that this would be the coda of a man so strong, giving, loyal, dedicated, and selfless. But Alzheimer’s doesn’t discriminate. It will eventually take over his mind and steal him from us. *Pause for more tears*
But that last part isn’t how I want to remember my dad. Besides, this journey he is on has meaning.
As kids, he brought us kicking and screaming into his restaurants to work. We wanted to play with our friends. We didn’t realized we learning: about hard work, earning money, customer service, responsibility, entrepreneurship, and management. You don’t learn this stuff at school.
Dad always worked and we rarely saw him, but his influence was far-reaching. Through his example, we learned about the importance of family (and family is not always blood); going above and beyond/giving your all; the Golden Rule; importance of education; respect; resilience; never giving up; gratitude/counting your blessings; and above all – to love and care for one another, no matter what.
These are just some things off the top of my head.
I’m sad that Dad isn’t still living with us; I guess I was angry too. I had big plans. I wanted to take care of him – the first time since he was a small child that anyone had. I wanted him to experience things he had missed while working. I wanted to take him to Greece for one last trip, to see his siblings, to breathe in his homeland for a final time. Sadly, that’s not to be. In the midst of all the trials and tribulations of recognizing the changes in Dad, we did have fun. We took him to the zoo, the botanic gardens, a museum – all things he’d never done before. One day, he was in the backyard playing catch with the girls. I joined in, and realized something amazing: I never played catch with my dad before, since he was always working. I mentioned it, and Dad simply smiled. It was a magic moment indeed.
We took him on his first real vacation, to California. He enjoyed it immensely. We didn’t get to do all I’d hoped, but we had these magic moments. I think now one of the reasons I was having trouble with his move was that I didn’t get to do all the things I wanted to do for him, that I needed to give back more. I realize that in those months, I gave him more than I thought – and we reaped the benefits as well. My girls tell me they also miss him living with us.
Though Dad is happy to have been reunited with Mom, and again feels some sense of purpose in doing things for her, I know he isn’t happy with his living arrangements. Though he dislikes it, he wears a wander guard bracelet, and walks with a walker—both assigned for his safety and protection. He does it only because he is a rule-follower.
I’m so much like my dad. In many ways. I’ve tried to embody his lessons. I take pride in that. In celebrating his life, I see him as a hero. Against the odds, he accomplished much. My mom would frequently say, “You’re just like your father!” What an incredible compliment, even if it wasn’t always intended.
Yes, we’re celebrating his life. He’s 81 and has Alzheimer’s. How long he will be with us is anyone’s guess. He may forget that we visited shortly after we’ve left, but that’s OK. We were there. My daughters have had the opportunity to revel in his pure, unconditional love. The other day, as I watched them cuddle on the bed with Papou, I remembered doing this as a kid – when Dad would come home to nap before returning to work. It was a rare moment to be close to him, and I looked forward to it. My kids now do as well. *Smile*
I tell my daughters about his life, and how much he loves them and how much they make him happy. They are 8 and 6, and I hope they will remember those afternoons of giggles and cuddles with Papou, and not the man in decline. I won’t let that happen. We’ll continue to visit, and welcome any opportunity to see his smiling face, to hug him, to spend that time. And every moment will be special; we need to soak them up while we can. There are no guarantees in this life. Dad is still here – and on this last journey, he’s still teaching us, about love, grace, priorities, family – about life. We’ll continue to celebrate the life, the lessons, the love—of a simple, hard-working man, who leaves an indelible mark on us. How incredibly blessed we are.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maria A. Karamitsos is a writer, blogger, mom, and proud Hellene. She blogs about parenting in the Sandwich Generation, the writerly quest, and life, at From the Mommy Files… She’s working on an exciting new project that will allow her to further share her love for all things Greek. Follow her on Twitter @MariaKaramitsos for updates.