My father died today after suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease for many years. He was 89. Two years ago at precisely this time of year, I wrote this story. It describes a moment in time when I began to let go of the man I had known and loved for over 50 years.
My hair is damp and cool. The sun is low and warm. Flecks of light bounce and spin across the water, releasing the last energy of a perfect day. Its remnants sift through the trees and up the hill to the spot where we – my small son and I – sit bathed in liquid gold.
The house was a dream of my dad’s for years before it became wood and stone. Its setting amid pines and water was only discovered after many Sunday mornings spent checking out lake properties for sale.
My best childhood memories include water. Growing up across the street from Lake Michigan, there were many walks to the beach in summer, but also across the crunchy ice of January mornings.
In the spring and summer there were fishy smells and glass stones of all shapes and colors, collected in plastic bags and treasured like jewels. In the cold of winter, we climbed the white mounds of snow and ice along the shore.
Many water-centered vacations broke up the routine of my early life. To this day, I wonder – what did my mom do on our family vacations? Of course she was there with us, but I have fewer distinct memories of her during those less routine times. After all, we were used to having meals and clean clothes, hugs and bedtime stories, security.
With my dad, we lived on the edge. We tested limits, tried new things – mostly in the water – and gained newfound confidence that we could, at least in that moment, do anything.
He did – do anything and everything that is, or so it seemed to me. He entered high school weighing about 100 pounds. Swimming helped fill out his 5’8″ frame over the years that followed, leading to summer jobs as a lifeguard in Chicago. After serving in the Navy during WWII, he returned to school, eventually graduating from Yale Law School and practicing law in Milwaukee for over 40 years.
My dad was a lifesaver, literally.
While sailing, he saved the life of a good friend’s daughter. They were on Lake Michigan in May when the boat capsized. It was cold. The teenage girl was trapped in the ropes underneath, but my dad somehow managed to free her and carry her safely to the surface.
That was not the only life he saved in the water. While on vacation years ago, my 2-year-old brother wandered into the lake alone. My dad discovered him face-down, floating lifelessly “like a lillypad” as the story goes. He pulled my brother out of the water and brought him back to life.
In a way, he saved my mom too. When they met, she was a single mother to 3 boys. They went on to have 3 more children, providing a good life for all of us.
Now I am standing outside the kitchen window at my parents’ lake house. I feel the warmth of my memory fade and sense the chill of the April Wisconsin air. The shimmer of the water on that August day in 1985 morphs in my thoughts, becoming the twinkling of stars overhead – beautiful, peaceful, shocking. My baby son’s smiling face becomes an empty deck chair, now in disrepair.
It is 2012, not 1985. I turn toward the window, smudged with dirt, and a cluster of pill bottles catches my eye. The water wings and damp towels, remnants of past days of play, are gone. In their place is a large plastic bag of Depends and a glass that holds my dad’s dentures as they soak in pale blue liquid.
My dad is asleep in his bedroom, still wearing the khaki pants he refused to take off. His brilliant mind and tough spirit could not hold off the attack of Alzheimer’s Disease.
The stars begin to appear glassy and distorted, and I realize that I am crying. The feeling? Grief. I am in the middle of the ultimate long goodbye – with a man who always avoided them.