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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Lost Memories

When you've lost someone you love, it can be difficult to remember them accurately. Their feats and faults can be equally exaggerated, yet the details of their face or the unique mannerisms they used may become quite hazy.

Sometimes this happens to me when I think about my dad. He was sick for so long, that it's hard to remember what he was like before the symptoms started. I dream of him quite frequently, but 99% of the time, he's sick and dying. Once in a while, I dream about him as he was before Lewy Bodies took over his brain. In those dreams, he's smiling. His hazel eyes twinkle and dance with mischief. Last week I had one of those rare dreams of him in good health. It was such a gift that I tried to laugh and turn to my husband in my sleep to tell him my dad was in the room. But struggling up from the depths of sleep made me realize that I was less awake than I'd hoped.

Dad being "in the room," isn't just something I'd say in my sleep. I've felt his presence a few times. Not as often as I would like. You are probably skeptical and wondering why in the world an intelligent woman would believe her dead father was in the room (or wondering if I am, in fact, intelligent), but it has happened. There are no visions, or chats, or anything we need to call the Ghost Hunters about. It's never when I "call" him to come talk, and I haven't participated in any seances. But sometimes, when I least expect it, he's there. I know it, I can feel him, but I see nothing. I tell my husband because he's perhaps the only person who doesn't think I'm insane (or perhaps just accepts my insanity as part of my charm), and I become flooded with a warm, peaceful feeling that makes me smile. It's only happened three or four times since he died.

In my dream, he was standing beside me at my bed, telling me a joke. He was young (I never knew him as a young man), and laughing at his own joke before he could even finish it. I laughed myself awake, though I can't remember the joke to save my life.

Most of the time, however, my dreams are part of reliving the trauma of his last days. You see, I don't feel upset that my father died. Yes, of course I miss him more than anything. But when I think of him, the sense of loss I feel is for what he had to endure during the last year of his life. He suffered unfathomable mental anguish as his brain deteriorated. Those dark spots called Lewy Bodies robbed him of his security and confidence. They gave him nightmarish hallucinations, constant confusion, and blurred his reality entirely. He was tormented relentlessly by rage, doubt, and helplessness. There were times when he wondered where his parents were because his brain told him it was a different decade than he was truly in. He had to relive finding out of their death more than once, his heart broken over and over by traumatic events he'd already had to endure once in life.

So remembering him when he wasn't addled, tormented, confused and suffering is sometimes difficult. When I'm gifted with a dream of him telling a joke, I hold onto it as tightly as I would any material object that was his, hoping to have a piece of him for just a moment to keep with me.

But at times, who he was before he got so sick comes back unexpectedly. Wonderful little surprises, little imprints of his personality flash by like birds flitting through the air, or a butterfly just out of reach. It's there, you can see it, but you can't touch it.

The other night, I was watching the original The Odd Couple with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. I always did think Jack Lemmon looked quite a bit like my dad when he was younger, or at least what I can see from the photos. In the movie, one of the men pulls out a handkerchief. The memory that flashed before me was such a wonderful reminder of my father's unusual eccentricities.

I remember being a little girl in church, sitting with my dad. My mother was the organist, so going to church was something I always associated with my father. He sang hymns deliberately off-key to make me laugh, all the while keeping a straight face so no one would accuse him of heresy. He would always listen intently to the sermon, however, nodding now and then when a phrase particularly struck him. He's the man you'd hear giving the lone short burst of genuine laughter to the joke from the preacher that fell flat with the rest of the congregation. He had a funny little chuckle that came in three nervous bursts when he was done with the belly laugh but wanted to indicate he thought something was funny even when it might not be.

Sometimes, as any child does, I'd sneeze in the middle of the sermon. Being both the doting parent and the conscientious gentleman, he would learn forward to withdraw his handkerchief from his back pocket. He was a man who really used his handkerchiefs. I mean, he really used them. They were always stuck together with all manner of vile goo, stained, and usually a corner was shredding. He had a few white ones, but for some reason, I mostly remember the charcoal grey ones. Perhaps because I wasn't sure why anyone would carry around one of such a disgusting color until I saw the way the white ones were pasted together with the aforementioned "goo." It was a chivalrous gesture, to be sure, as he proferred the dirty, folded square to me, and I was loathe to deny him his moment of good deed. But having to place my hands over the thinly veiled crust brought more than one drop of bile to my throat. I would pretend to dab at my nose a bit before handing it back to him and being firmly determined to not let out another sneeze. To this day, I still pinch my nose closed when I sneeze.

But a memory like that, gross as it may be (and it is, in fact, gross), is a little gift. Those little memories are all I have. He wasn't an easy man to get to know. I still have so many unanswered -- and unasked -- questions. We didn't really talk much; we communed. When we were in the same room, we'd find a companionable silence as we became engrossed in our individual tasks. My mother would breeze through the room between piano lessons, chattering non-stop all the way, and we'd look up, smile, perhaps dad would reply to one of her many remarks, but he'd immediately return to whatever was absorbing his interest. Instead of talking, we'd watch television and nod at each other when we both saw or heard something interesting. There was no need to discuss it, we'd just acknowledge that something interesting had occurred and that was our way of noting it. I inherited his awkward social skills, but instead of limiting our conversations, it made words unnecessary. There was comfort in that, that we could simply be in the same room without speaking or feeling a need to converse. Sometimes we'd try. I tried near the end of his life when he'd forget where he was and what year it was by increasing increments. I'd sit in a room with him while I crocheted a blanket. He'd pipe up with something he thought he'd heard on the radio, or share one of the vivid hallucinations he thought was a real event. I'd listen, comment, tried not to react when he'd talk about having heard on the radio "the other day," an event that had transpired decades earlier. I'd comment how interesting that was, and then watch from the corner of my eye as he tried desperately to connect the dots in his brain and climb out of the confusion drowning him. To salvage his pride, I'd mention something that truly had only happened "the other day," and he'd latch onto the recent memory with gratitude, as if it was a lifeline. In a way, it was; our discussing the present was the only road map he had back to it.

I am sometimes jealous of my siblings because they knew him so much longer than I did. They had memories of him when he was still relatively young. When I was born, he was a month away from 50. My school friends assumed he was my grandpa, but I explained with pride that he was my father. I wish I had more memories of him before the illness started taking root. Though he was diagnosed with Lewy Bodies just three years before he died, I can identify some of the symptoms as having started up to twenty years earlier. The nightmares about animals, the subtle personality changes, the eccentricities that became more exaggerated, and the increasing paranoia. What I would give to have more memories of him as a healthy man! But they come back, here and there, little rays of sunshine amidst the trauma of his illness.

Being a vet, he loved animals. It didn't really seem that strange when he started having nightmares of bears chasing him. He used to work with bears, so of course he would have nightmares about them. In fact, he got a bear drunk once since he didn't have any anasthesia handy. I'm glad I was too young to remember all the details of that story. But as the nightmares increased over the years, and the nighttime terrors that had the whole household on edge waiting for the yelling to begin came with more frequency, it became clear this was not normal. Little did we know how his brain was slowly being covered in little spots that were slowly sucking the life from him and changing who he was.

Though he adored my mother more than anything in the world, the real love of his life was my dog, Tangy. Because I was infected with wanderlust, Tangy lived mostly with my parents the first five years of her life. She was his constant companion, his pride and joy. He loved to take her out for walks and would regale me with tales of her bowel movements over the phone when I called.

Another memory that popped back into my head recently was when my husband mentioned wanting to give Tangy (now almost 12 years old) some ground up breath-saving treats. When he said, "We need to grind up --" I started giggling before he could finish his sentence. All I could think of was perhaps the grossest part of my father's legacy.

I don't know how it started. I don't want or need to know.

My dad had some untreated toenail fungus. Before the days of Lamisil and laser treatments, you just watched your toenails grow into fossil-like stalagmites. Dad had an impressive array of "toenails" that had visitors running for the barf bags when he came lumbering down the stairs in his bare feet. Our staircase was such that you'd be eye-level with the monstrosities when you sat on the couch. He always went to bed earlier than most school children, so it wasn't uncommon for a pleasant conversation with a visitor to be interrupted by his cursing out some polar bear in his nightmares, followed by the opening of the bedroom door upstairs. Everyone would get quiet as the heavy footsteps clomped down the stairs, and his impossibly white legs would peek out from beneath his long flannel nightshirt. At the end of those legs would be the toes plagued by an out-of-control fungal growth that is probably even now spreading throughout Arlington National Cemetery. I mean, it was just unreal, the sheer size of the stratified layers beneath what used to be his toenails.

Because nail clippers were of no use to such a disease, my father one day had a brilliant idea while sitting in the breakfast nook by the kitchen. He didn't tell us the reason why he wanted us to bring him his power drill with its assorted attachments, but we probably should have known since he was examining his feet during the request. When he carefully rummaged through the attachment case for the sander, I don't think we really got it until he revved that baby up and started grinding up his own toenails. There were screams from me that irritated my brother and made my mother clamp her hands over her ears. She was busy trying not to throw up, and my brother wasn't sure whether to leave the room or go get the video camera. In the end, there were protests that were lost amidst the scream of the power drill digging into dead tissue.

To be fair, he was as clean as he could possibly be. He carefully ground up a fine grey-white dust in a little pile on the floor. It grew higher and higher as he moved from toe to toe, but it was neat and tidy. He was accurate, I can say that much. After sanding down his toenails to just a thin layer of crust covering the skin, he smiled with satisfaction as he turned the power drill off and looked at us with pride. He'd solved his own problem, and that was all that mattered -- kind of his silent motto in life, but add "to hell with everyone else," and that'd be about right. He grinned happily as he swept any remaining little grains of toenail dust up to the base of the pile that was a perfect pyramid with softened edges.

Then, he called Tangy's name. The rest of us in the house were still blissfully ignorant of what we were about to witness, so we watched with naive curiosity. The little Pomeranian scrambled down the stairs from her post on the bathmat in the upstairs bathroom, and her little nails clicked curiously across the floor as she ran into the kitchen to see what treat my father had in store. He'd taught her to pick up any little crumb that fell to the floor by pointing her in the direction of the morsel; we didn't even need a vacuum cleaner. Her little tongue just mopped up anything that might have once been food.

So when dad pointed to the little pile of fungus-infected toenail dust, Tangy eagerly went toward it with heightened anticipation. She licked at the dust as if it was the finest delicacy. My mother gagged, my brother howled, and I think I ruined everyone's hearing with whatever you can call what was streaming forth from my own mouth. We watched with fascinated horror as she cleaned up every last bit of my dad's handiwork. Dad's shoulders were shaking as he enjoyed the strength of our revulsion, mirth convulsing his body beyond speech while he carefully wound up the cord to the power drill and put it back in the case. Tangy licked her chops and looked up at him greedily, wanting more. Dad pat her on the head, told her she was a good doggie, and went happily up to bed. We were left stewing in our own histrionics.

Ok, so maybe the things that I remember before my dad got sick are sick in another way entirely. I remember other things about him, of course. But one of the most salient aspects of his personality was his love of making people react strongly to things. The lengths he would go to in order to achieve this are legendary. And you were never really quite sure if he was serious about any of it or not. Did he plan the whole toenail dust debcale, or was he improvising? I don't know. We'll never know.

While these little memories flit by, gifts that remind me of a man who always did things his own way, there is one detail about my father I never forget: his smile. While he was fond of making silly faces, his real smile could knock you right off your feet. His eyes sparkled, his mouth curved slightly crooked in a way that revealed his inherent shyness. That beaming smile that conveyed so much life, so much love, so much joy in the world.... that's what I miss when I think about my dad, above all else. But the best gift he left behind for me was that any time I want to see that smile, I have only to look in the mirror.

Thank you, Daddy. I miss you.

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