The fourth of November marks the start of a new era—truly, one chapter ended and another began. And I’ve been in the process of working through what this brings, what this means, what is to be learned, ever since.
My dad was a complicated man. He was a good breadwinner, a faithful companion, a loyal friend, and a responsible church member. He was funny, energetic, gifted with a talent for delivering the most horrible of long-winded groaner jokes, and respected by many a boy whom he mentored through his many years of leadership in the BSA or the Royal Rangers. But he had a horrible temper that often flared, was diagnosed as paranoid, didn’t understand how to bring that energy and sense of safety into his relationships with his children, and repeatedly humiliated his wife. He loved Jesus and tried to serve God with all his heart. And he dedicated many long hours to people who needed him. His rage could wither his children into raisins, but he was also the one we’d call when we needed somebody just to listen to heartache without having to receive a prayer that made us feel our emotions were a sign of faithlessness. And he was the one person in my family who didn’t mind that I am gay (back when I first tried to come out), at least, who never said anything to indicate he minded.
My dad was a magnet for calamity. He was a horrible driver—which generated mom’s standard passenger-seat pose: the death grip of her right hand to the handle above the window and the locked-elbow brace of her left to the dashboard. He got into more car accidents from his reckless, emotional driving, than I can remember, and the story of his being hit by a train is legend in our household. As is the time he got bitten by a barracuda when scuba diving. Legend not from his telling, mind you, but from mom’s talk of how accident prone he was.
The Pink Panther movies were a trope in our lives: if anyone on the planet came close to the hapless chaos that surrounded Inspector Clouseau, it was dad. His house repair projects were invariably disasters. The fence he was going to build became a not-so-straight line of vertical railroad ties, spaced about ten feet apart, upon which neighborhood cats liked to perch. The fence between the spacers never materialized. But the deck, with help from a good church friend and a couple of his kids, became a center of family barbecues and afternoon breaks. The downstairs bathroom, on the other hand, was quite a different story. He had to work on that one alone. Tim the Tool Man was better prepared for household projects than was my dad.
He could, however, work a mean chainsaw. And every weekend through late summer and autumn, he’d drive us (mom in death-grip pose) up to the woods in Idaho where we’d find down trees, cut them to bits, and haul them home, cord by cord, to heat the house for winter. And he was an avid reader, devouring anything he could in theology, mystery novels, history, or music. He was a jazz fanatic, and his LP collection was massive, filled with all the original cast recordings of any great Broadway show you can think of, the great jazz artists’ landmark albums, and the most amazing recordings of the Boston Pops or other classical performances. His stereo system, including reel-to-reel, records, and cassettes, was state of the art, and we’d either find ourselves being blasted out of the house (predating wifi or surround sound) by Dave Brubeck or Scheherezade or honored by the privilege of being allowed to put on his sound-proof earphone system to get the full effect. He had once had the chance to sit in and jam with Brubeck’s group. He had all the original Bill Cosby and Smothers Brothers LPs. And when this new notion, in the early 80s, of communicating to friends long-distance between computers came into being, he was one of the very first, talking to friends via his Commodore 64. And it was on this computer that he allowed my brother to build a BBS that I was lucky enough to design. Back before WoW, we were online playing strategy games and joking with others in a newly evolving lingo eventually to be called chat.
As I kid, I didn’t have the conceptual apparatus to integrate the complexities of my father. All I could see was that his demeanor at home and his demeanor with his friends at church were on opposite poles. He never showed his rage to his friends. And I felt that to be the worst sort of hypocrisy. And I felt his treatment of us was horribly unchristlike. He was lazy, believing that all the housework and home chores were ours, not his, and that he could drop his things where ever he wanted them to drop—and he would either yell at us for leaving the house a wreck if we didn’t put it away or for “stealing” his stuff if we dared to move it to tidy things up. We couldn’t win. And I interpreted this as hypocrisy, irrationality, and later—as cruelty. I judged him harshly. He was a bully, mean, manipulative, passive aggressive. And I never understood why mom wouldn’t defend us kids during one of his tirades, even when she’d say that it was far better this way, that if she got involved, it would only make it worse. My cousins avoided us because they would always get into trouble, regardless what they were doing, if we were doing it with them.
I never understood mom’s voiced longing, “if only you could see him the way his friends do! He’s really a great guy.”
To be perfectly honest, there was a longish season in my life where I hated my dad. And ‘hate’ is not too strong of a word, though I wish it were. On my 16th birthday, we were awakened to the news that dad had had a serious heart attack, and mom was taking him to the hospital. He had triple bypass surgery, and the one day that I actually had rights to call mine became his. Certainly, I was worried about him, but when we all visited him in ICU, I was horrified to find myself feeling dead, and thankful that it was not mom beneath all that tubing. But it was this man who, even while preparing for surgery, had led three people to Christ. And it was this man who would drop everything to go show compassion to a stranger facing death or destitution. Something, I realized, was very wrong in how I felt. Something, I realized, was going on that was far more complicated than the black and white world I had been taught was reality.
On my 25th birthday, dad went in to have a check on his carpal tunnel, and it was discovered that his bypass was dying and needed to be remade. So again, the day was about him. I wasn’t resentful this time, but wry. I had a life, my own home, and was by then amenable to a grey world. But the irony wasn’t lost on anyone in our family.
It was then that I began to see dad’s behavior dramatically change. He became more irrational than his anger could explain. And for a season, he became the cruelest person I’d ever known anyone to be. But his repentance was filled with a sort of fear that you only see in very small children. And he began losing words. I knew what was going on. Alzheimer’s. But my family, especially mom, believed that if you claim something in Jesus’ name, no matter how the world around you appears, you have it. She claimed health for dad. So he was not sick. Just like that.
But he was. And eventually there was no denying it for anyone near him. He was forbidden by his doctor to drive any more. The passenger-seat death grip became a passive statement of those times mom didn’t approve of how whichever one of us was driving, and then eventually faded away altogether. And then came the day we visited the lawyer to arrange power of attorney over him by mom. It was touch and go for a bit there, because we weren’t sure he could even sign his name any longer—this the man whose calligraphy was well known by any who’d spent any time with him. And the day he was diagnosed as paranoid—a day that did more to lift the confusion and guilt of years of anger and resentment that had built itself up in the darkest, most hidden cellar of my life. And then came the time he was kicked out of respite care because he frightened the others, the time where I stepped into the gap to care for him so that my mother could get away to run errands, take a nap, or whatever else she needed.
Winter came, and I was taking him out to the car. As my dad’s dementia grew, his eye color changed. His friends used to call him Leo, because he had a mane of red hair, shaggy eyebrows, and yellow-green eyes. But they had turned ice blue. It was a greying day, and cold. He looked up at me and then to the sky, as the first flakes began to fall. “Schnee,” he said.
Mom looked at me sadly, thinking he was babbling again.
“That’s right, dad,” I said. “It’s snowing.”
My dad grew up in a German speaking community right at the end of WWII. He was picked on horribly by his classmates as a small child, and his teacher used to allow him to leave school five minutes before the day was over so that he could find a good hiding spot, because the kids would otherwise beat the crap out of him. I don’t know how old he was when he learned English, certainly a boy, but my grandparents spoke with a German-English accent until they died. I was studying language acquisition, yet here watching my father regress. He couldn’t speak much English any longer, but still, for a brief time yet, had German, which he hardly ever used, probably didn’t even remember, before this desperate time of grasping for any word that seemed appropriate.
This brief season was the healing of my relationship with dad. He’d fade in and out of language, in and out of the present, often telling me in broken sentences and phrases about his life in Japan, stories I’d never heard before, except in the broadest brush strokes. And when a terror would strike, I would read scripture to him until he was calmer—or we’d go get a latte at Cabin Coffee and take walks around Coeur d’Alene park in Browne’s Addition. Or we’d sit at mom’s kitchen table and play Jenga to work on his motor skills until the noise was more than he could take. Or we’d sit on the couch and go through his memory book, an album mom and my sister and I put together, outlining his life, to help him remember who he was. And though by this time, he had very little language left, he’d point and babble unintelligibly to me about his great adventures as a drummer in the Angus Scott Pipe Band, or his photography, or his time working as a personal body guard for Billy Graham.
In September of 2001, dad followed mom out the back door like a puppy. She was taking out the trash, and it wasn’t very interesting after all, so he returned to the house, opening a door that he must have thought entered the kitchen. Only it didn’t, and he fell face first down the steep basement stairs and landed, sprawled awkwardly, sickeningly, at the foot of the couch where my sister was taking a nap. He’d broken his neck. It came as a relief to us, a couple days later, that the towers were attacked, because the horror of dad’s new life in bureaucracy-ravaged hospitals was beyond our ability to take in, let alone communicate to those who wondered why we were so in shock and horrified. Now they thought it was just the national grief and shock that had taken us.
And it was only a couple days after that that my dad’s little brother died. Now my whole family was in turmoil. My uncle was a devoted father, painfully shy, and kind. My cousins were devastated, shattered, and confused. My dad’s older brother came to town to see one brother in the insanity that only extreme pain and dementia, combined with paranoia, can bring, and his other brother dead. It was dark, dark, dark. As dark as it could ever get.
Until we found that for dad to receive the proper treatment, for his neck brace to stay on, a tool of torture by vindictive enemies, he thought, he’d have to be put into restraints. It was the only way he’d not claw it off, even after we had a cast put around it. And the hospital couldn’t keep him in restraints, first, because he kept breaking beds in the mental ward, and second, because it was illegal in Washington State for anyone except the state itself to restrain anyone. But if dad’s break moved even a fraction, he’d either be paralyzed for life, or dead. We consulted with the state, and decided to commit him, on the grounds that once the break was healed, once he was in therapy, we’d get him back.
But the state lied.
And I soon found out what a seething anger can feel like—the anger at injustice at the governmental level. The anger at a state boldly posting giant signs declaring patient rights, and systematically violating every right, every dignity, removing every shred of humanity from my father. Leaving him to sit in excrement. Losing his teeth. Dressing him in clothing that he’d never have worn, having lost all of his. Ignoring him, tied up to either a bed or a chair, for hours. Giving him other patients’ medication, then rushing him to the emergency room to have his stomach pumped because he was near death. Then having the audacity to charge us for the ambulance.
We tried everything we could within state and federal law to get him back. But it was only fiscal cutbacks that closed the ward in which he was imprisoned that led to his release. But the damage was done. He’d been neglected, physically tied up—tied down, for three long years, and his dementia had won. He had no language left. And he scarcely recognized anyone but mom and his brother. He was now in gentle restraints (more like seatbelts than the nylon bands he’d endured before), to keep him from falling over. He no longer knew how to walk or stand erect, this the man whose dexterity and flexibility was breathtaking. He was reduced to communicating with those bushy eyebrows. But he was finally in a place that actually cared about him, that treated him with respect.
Of course, we were all jumpy. Each time they called to tell us some news (“Sorry, ma’am, but we seem to have nicked him when shaving him this morning.”) we were terrified of something akin to what the state had done to him (“Sorry ma’am, but we seem to have given him his meds three times this morning, and he’s not breathing and turning a funny color.”).
His last years were as dignified as can be for somebody who’s lost much of his mind. But that didn’t leave us without questions. From the time dad fell to this month, I’ve prayed that dad would die, that he’d be taken out of this hell. What took God so long? What was to be learned? What was the point of the restrained incarceration and the long, painful demise? And what of the treatment of mom? The state’s understanding of Medicaid is perhaps the cruelest treatment of the spouse of the ill that I have ever experienced. The state-imposed poverty was unlivable, and though all of us were poor, we all found ourselves doing what we could to help mom, even though dad had spent his life at a job he loathed to be sure mom would be financially well cared for, should anything happen. The state took everything he had set for her for him, leaving mom to grasp like the destitute behind Boaz’s reapers. What justice is in this? And what about that promise of a “sound mind”? I don’t know.
I was at the store, grumbling at the Indiana blue laws that forbid the purchase of anything alcoholic while polls are open. And I was sorely tempted to see if they would be consistent and bar me from buying not only the celebratory wine I wanted for what I was sure would be a presidential victory, but also a bottle of vanilla extract I needed for Christmas baking. It was going to be a good day.
My brother’s number was on my phone, which was odd. He and I had spoken just the night before, and he was surely at work in meetings. Only, he wasn’t. He was driving along the Columbia Gorge in his ’68 Beetle. Not exactly a safe trek for a Beetle, especially in November. Dad has died. Call mom. We’ll figure out how to get you to Spokane. I’ll call you once I’m out of the Gorge.
So much for Obama Day.
And how utterly perfect, how ironic, how like dad, that he shanghaied the day that the first African American would be elected president. Like he shanghaied 9/11. And my 16. How totally perfect. Only, the thought wasn’t angry, bitter, or anything like that. Just wry. After so many years of suffering with dad, it truly was perfect. And the irony was lost on no one in our family.
I learned Obama won the next day via my standard Morning Edition routine. I didn’t know whether Indiana had turned blue or not. I didn’t know anything about Prop 8 or Washington’s death with dignity act. I didn’t half care. I was commissioned to write an obituary, and I still had a pile of deadlines to meet, and only one short day to meet them all, write the obit, pack, and find a flight across the country. And that week had been a particularly hard one on my body, so I was to somehow find both time and energy to get all this done.
It was superhuman, it had to be prayer, that moved me, because I hadn’t the strength. But somehow, all got done, the obit and application deadlines were met, and I was cleaning my house and packing, late in the evening, when I learned how I was going to get to the airport, 60 miles away, the next morning. The flights were ridiculously long, punctuated with wine and the atrocious halitosis of the fellow in the seat next to me, the day exhausting. But my brother met me with a kind word, his journey having been punctuated by the breakdown of his car in the desert south of Ritzville in the middle of the night. He caught me up with funeral plans, and the next few days were frenzied.
My sister gave the eulogy. My brother orchestrated the memorial and worked as peacemaker between harried, insomniac family members. My other sister created the PowerPoint show that encapsulated dad’s life. And when they opened up the floor for people to talk about the man they knew and befriended, I sat there, finally seeing a glimpse of the man mom had so many years ago yearned for me to know. The guy whom everyone loved. The funny, generous soul. The guy with such a huge heart. The guy who fed triumphant Boy Scouts a snake on a camp out, orchestrated the BSA hosting of the 1974 World’s Fair, gave generously of time and money to homeless and imprisoned, sat long hours for many a late night with a priest collar in in bars as an ear to the discouraged, and always helped another who needed another body for a physical task. The guy an angry, self-absorbed teenager never saw—the guy a helpful, learning-to-be-patient thirty-something couldn’t reach.
After the memorial service, my eldest cousin whispered to my brother, “That’s not the guy I knew. That’s the guy I wish I knew.” Me, too.