Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Shadows of My Father

Several years ago, when my older children were very young, the oldest being only 4 or 5 at the time, we were invited by some friends to ride on their boat with them.  My husband is a very good water skier, and our friends had water skis on their boat; so we decided Todd could show off his ski skills.  He was doing great, shooting back and forth over the wake, looking like a pro.  The kids were cheering for daddy, their faces lit up with admiration and pride.  Their daddy was pretty cool.  Then, suddenly Todd hit a big wave and went down fast.  My children reacted by screaming in panic and fear, then bawling while our friend steered the boat back to get him.  They were terrified that something had happened to their daddy.  It took several minutes for our oldest daughter to calm down and realize that everything was fine, and that daddy was not hurt.  In those moments, I realized just how much my children adored their father.  I thought about how much a part of their life he was, how important he was to them.  In those moments, I wondered what life would be like if something ever happened to Todd.  It gave me a glimpse of the profound loss it would be for us all.  This may seem kind of dramatic after a little fall while water skiing, but the way my children responded in those moments when they thought their daddy was badly hurt really caused me to reflect.  It was a moment and a feeling that burned into my memory.

I remember feeling the same way about my own daddy, when I was a little girl.  The first memories I have are of times with my father.  He was larger than life in my little world, with his big, wide smile and  thick Cuban accent.  My father is fun-loving, gregarious, charming, and engaging.  He was always laughing and playing with me when he was around. When I was nine years old, my father decided to leave our family.  I was completely devastated, wondering what I had done wrong.  Why didn't he want to live with us anymore?  Surely, there was something I could do to win him back to us.  I spent the next countless years subconsciously trying to be the perfect child, perhaps secretly hoping he would come back to us someday. That wasn't to be.  Over the years, I accepted that.  While I had my reasons to resent him and what he had done to our family, I always loved him and longed to see him.  I enjoyed the times I had with him growing up.  I am a lot like my father in many ways.  My dad was an intellectual who enjoyed reading the paper, journals, and articles to gain more knowledge.  He would photo copy articles he found interesting and send them to me and my sisters.  I have always loved learning, so I looked forward to receiving his little educational blurbs in the mail.  When we were together, we could talk for hours.  As I got older, I valued talking to him and listening to what he had to say.  Once I began following Jesus, I was able to let go of all the resentment I had held onto over the years due to the divorce and abandonment I had felt from him.  I was able to see him as God sees him, and I was filled with compassion for my dad. 

We recently spent a week visiting my dad and stepmother at their home on the beautiful Gulf of Mexico in the Florida panhandle.  While we were there, in a setting so beautiful and peaceful, I finally saw for myself the reality of what is happening to my father.  About 1 1/2 years ago, my dad was diagnosed with "probable" early-onset Alzheimer's disease. I was not willing to accept this diagnosis.  At that time, much of his lapse in memory could be blamed on absent-mindedness.  He had always been the "absent minded professor," so I didn't want to believe that his memory issues were anything out of the ordinary.  He was getting older, and of course, memory issues usually come with age to some degree.  I struggled to make excuses for his apparently increasing lapses in memory.  My dad was forgetting things like dates and other seemingly minor or more common things for people to forget as they get older. I rationalized that he had depended on secretaries to keep his calendar and schedule for so long that it was natural for him not to remember things like what day of the week it was.  Just one year ago, my sisters and I visited my dad with our families, and I was able to explain away the little stream of forgetfulness we all saw widening into a river. Reality began to set in, however, last October, when I was speaking with my dad on the phone while I was in the car with one of the kids.  I felt like there were two different conversations going on at the same time. I would say something, and he would respond with something that seemed completely unrelated.  That was the first time I thought that maybe there was something deeper going on with my dad. He mostly stuck to easy, nonthreatening things like the weather.  He kept asking me if the kids were enjoying the trip.  I had to remind him a couple of times that I was with only one of our children and we were just taking our goats 1/2 hour away to get validated for 4H.  Three months later, at the follow up visit at the Mayo clinic, the doctors confirmed the diagnosis and said that my dad had declined significantly since the visit the year before, and that he was very progressed in the disease of Alzheimer's.

It really wasn't until this recent visit, however, that I truly saw how bad things are getting, and how far gone my father truly is.  Not once did my own father spontaneously refer to me by my own name!  He called me, "baby's mama" or even "hey, you!"  He was still laughing and gregarious, and we managed to get him out of the house and to the beach several times during our visit.  It was so sad for me to see him puttering about the house going through familiar motions over and over, such as watering his plants.  The problem is, he now repeats this little ritual a few times per day, and my stepmother tells me that he is actually killing some of the plants with over watering.  The rest of the day, he spends blankly staring at a TV he isn't really watching.  He sits in his favorite chair and stares at the screen; or he may turn and look out the window at the gorgeous view of the ocean beyond his back porch.  I know that when we aren't there, he spends hours like this.  It grieves my heart.

My father hurt our family deeply and crushed my little-girl's heart when I was 9 years old.  But years ago, because of the grace of my Lord Jesus, I was able to forgive him.  I was able to release the bitterness and exchange it for compassion.  I was able to see him the way God sees him.  Now, I wish to be closer to him so that we could see him more often.  I long for him to be able to be around all of my wonderful children who so obviously brought him joy when we were together.  I want to have as much time as possible with my daddy before he slips further and further away from us.  

A few days ago, we were on FaceTime with my dad, and as the children came by one by one and spoke to him, he just smiled, laughed and had a grand old time.  At one point, he saw my face fill the screen, and he exclaimed, "Oh!  Look!  You haven't changed at all!  My daughter!  My daughter!"  My heart was filled with a mixture of happiness and grief.  He recognized me, but he didn't say my name.  I felt like I was watching my dad water skiing behind the boat, waving at me with a smile before he fell into the deep waters below.

"The LORD is near to the brokenhearted 
And saves those who are crushed in spirit."  Psalm 34:18