Tuesday, June 1, 2010

June and all of its baggage

It is the first day of June. In Florida, that means the first day of hurricane season. For many it is the first day of summer vacation. I can always tell when summer has arrived with the blooming of the first dandelions. It seems appropriate they would bloom today, for it is the anniversary of my father's death.

He had a love-hate relationship with dandelions. Everyday since he retired he would be out in the yard with a tool he made from an old hoe. He had shaped the end to fit around a dandelion plant so that when he thrust it into the ground it would wedge the root between the prongs and he could flip the dandelion out of the ground. It would most of the time just break off the tap root, so the dandelion would simply grow a new top, but Dad took great satisfaction in the pile of plants and leaves he threw on the compost pile at the end of each day. He would mow, hoping to clip off the flowers before they went to seed. Sometimes he mowed every other day. Some might think he was obsessed. I will always see him grinning up at me from the middle of his lawn, holding aloft a particularly healthy specimen. He fashioned similar but smaller tools for my two sons who took pleasure in helping Grandpa fight the flowers.

June 1 is the day Dad officially stopped breathing and was 'declared' dead. But the man who was my father had begun to disappear more than a decade before that final June day.

He was diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer's Disease. They couldn't say definately which, but he followed the same path of far too many of our loved ones. One day he was driving his car, taking Mom and I out to lunch -- something he adored doing since his retirement. He stopped at an intersection and turned to Mom. "I don't know which way to go."

Today I want to shout "Don't go that way!" It was as if he had reached a point where he must shift directions from the strong, take charge, angry man who made me feel totally secure and protected to someone lost in a fog and totally dependent upon strangers.

Mom put the gear shift into park and she and Dad did one of those Chinese fire drills. I looked on in silence. We went out to lunch and he seemed subdued but okay. Mom drove home. He never drove the car again. His world soon shrank to the inside of their home. He would sit in the front room watching TV, think of something he needed in the kitchen at the back of the house. By the time he walked to the half-way point, he had forgotten what it was he needed or where he was going. We tried to laugh things off. He would answer the telephone when it rang, talk to the person calling, chatting away in the inane way people do. The moment he hung up, it was as if it never happened. Mom would ask, "Who called?" He would turn those confused eyes in her direction and ask, "Called?"

My young sons who had worshipped their grandpa were the most confused and frightened. We tried to help them understand that it was a disease, but they wanted their grandpa back. I wanted me father. Mom wanted a husband who didn't think she was his mother or worse yet, think she was keeping him from the people he loved.

But it has been a couple decades since that June day. I try to see instead the burly man who worked in the anealer room at the local steel mill. The man who loved Phil Silvers television show and dreaded Christmas. The man who had beamed with pride whenever he saw me and my two sons and who quickly accepted my husband as another son. I wonder at times how our lives might have been different if he had not wandered off down that dark and foggy path to dementia. Would my sons have learned important man lessons from him? Would he have taken pleasure in his retirement with my mother? What I do know is that even when he was suffering and in pain with the cancer that sneaked in when he wasn't looking, he was there when I needed him most.

He was in the hospital. Asleep I thought. I cried silently by his bed. He had not been my father for several years and didn't know who I was only that he thought I was a nice person. He looked over at me and said, "Don't worry, it will be alright." For that lucid moment he was Dad. I told him that I missed him so much. I wanted him back. He held my hand and smiled a tired smile. As he patted my hand, he disappeared back into his fog. It wasn't enough. It wasn't nearly enough. But it would have to do. He was still in there somewhere and on rare occasions he would find a way to peek out at us. I'd see a flash of him peering out of his eyes and he'd start to say something, but it would pass too quickly for words.

So, June first is a bittersweet day for me. Perhaps as you work in your lawn, eradicating a few dandelions, you'll think of my dad.

Benjamin Franklin Stump.

For those of you who enjoy fabric art, or like to create fabric art, the AAQI auction is open from now through the 10th. Proceeds go to fund research to find a cure for Alzheimer's Disease. Maybe if we can cure Dad's disease, the research will lead to a cure for my husband's disease -- ALS.