April 22. Earth Day. Especially in my line of work, it should be a day I enjoy and a day for me to focus on empowering and inspiring my Biology students to make a different for the better for our Earth. Instead, it’s a day that will most likely always transport me back to 2008 and the day my Dad left us. Sometimes five years feels like a long time. Today it feels like it was yesterday.
Grief is a strange beast. Some people grieve in quiet and solitude. Others like to share with others. I guess I’m in the “misery loves company” camp. Although I don’t particularly enjoy reliving the last days I shared with my parents, I DO appreciate that time that we were all together as a family, and I DO cherish the MANY happy memories I have of my parents. As many of you know, if you ask about my parents, I’ll tell you stories about them. Lots of stories. About the good, about the bad. About the happy, and about the painful. Today I’m celebrating a painful day by trying to focus on the happy thoughts.
My Dad was just about the kindest, most compassionate human being with patience of a saint. He was the peacemaker in our family, and sometimes there was a lot of peace that needed to be made between my mother and me. He had a fantastic sense of humor; he was a prankster who always had fun, and never at the expense of anyone else. He had a gorgeous baritone singing voice (if I close my eyes, I can still hear it…singing hymns…a permanent memory that is the product of years of sitting next to him in church and fishing mints out of his suitcoat pockets while he sang the baritone harmonies). He placed nothing higher on his priority list than taking care of his family and being fully present for every possible activity I was involved in (and for me, that was quite a bit!). He took us EVERYWHERE!
I’ve traveled to 48 states with my family on huge roadtrip vacations with our trailer in tow (and in caravan with lots of families who also had a trailer in tow), and even after it was just Mom and Dad…they kept camping even when they *shouldn’t* have been. I remember vividly a conversation my sister and I had with Dad on one of our many trips to Rochester for doctors’ appointments at Mayo (this would have been in 2004) when we were asking Dad why he was still taking Mom camping, when it was so hard for her to get around (she wasn’t walking anymore) and it was hard for him as well (he was showing some scary signs of dementia…which was why we were at Mayo for him). His answer to our question: “I want to make her happy.” That’s my Dad in a nutshell. He wanted to, and he did make people happy. We have lots of pictures as evidence of this (see the evidence).
If I think back to my favorite memories of my Dad…it takes me to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where I fed seagulls french fries and giggled furiously every time one of them stole one from my fingers – and I couldn’t reload with a fresh french fry and get my hand up there fast enough to offer up another treat for the birds.
It takes me to the cab of a tractor, a combine, or a truck. Endless rounds in the field where the two of us would sing along to the children’s songs on my favorite 8-track (I kid you not…I’m really dating myself and our farming equipment here)…remember I mentioned how great his singing voice was? Countless trips to the elevator, where the best part was when he bought me a can of RC Cola with the peel back kind of tabs (no pop tops back then!), and I’d sit and slurp it while he visited with the other farmers at the elevator.
It takes me to the selection of a musical instrument for 5th grade band, where I’m pretty sure my Dad was more excited about the saxophone than I was. He had played saxophone years before, and been in band both in school and when he was in the army. I’m pretty sure he practiced more than I did, and he really enjoyed playing in community band.
It takes me to my teenage years, when I was not always the perfect and pleasant child that he’d hoped for. However, he always lightened the mood with a well-placed prank…like the cup of water balanced on top of my slightly opened bedroom door that completely doused me when I walked into my room.
It takes me to the gravel roads around the farm, where he pulled over and we switched spots so he could teach me to drive in our 1983 diesel Chevy Celebrity, long before I had my permit. Each one of those driving sessions ended with the all-important words, “Don’t tell your Mother.”
It takes to to my college years, where I played in band and orchestra, where after every concert, once I’d find my parents in the crowd after our conductor had us stand for recognition after our final piece, Dad would be getting to his feet to start the standing ovation.
It takes me to my wedding day, where my Dad walked me down the aisle, and gave me a kiss on the cheek before he handed me off to John with a firm squeeze that spoke volumes. On that same night, I got to dance to “Edelweiss” with him. Due to a minor miscommunication with the DJ, it wasn’t the “Sound of Music” version that we’d wanted, but rather the polka version of the same song. Not quite the same sentiment, but we sure did have fun, and not only can he sing, but my Dad could dance too!
It takes me to the farm where I grew up, where I sat on the deck with my Mom and watched my Dad take Sarah by the hand to the swingset and lift her up onto the swing and push her. That was just a few months before we got the dreaded Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis for him, and just a few months before we moved them out of their beloved farmhouse and into assisted living. It was certainly all downhill from there.
When Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease (in the Fall of 2004, shortly after he turned 68), it was hard for us all to deal with. It was his worst nightmare, and one both he and Mom had been living in a comfortable place of denial with far too long. The doctors told us then that the progression of symptoms usually proceeded over about eight years or so. It progressed much more quickly than any of us anticipated, and the three and a half years we had after his diagnosis were a roller coaster, to put it mildly. It was very difficult to watch the firm foundation of our family lose the ability to carry on a conversation, to not see any loving recognition in his eyes when we’d come to visit, and to come to grips with the reality that my kids will not know their Grandpa…who was a pretty darn fun Grandpa when his mind was healthy.
I’m pretty sure that my Dad’s beliefs, work ethic, personality, and lightheartedness played a leading role in shaping who I am today. He was always helping people. He was always making friends. He was always having fun. He was always kind and patient. He worked hard. If I can be a fraction of the kind of person my Dad was, then perhaps I can make a difference in the lives of others and honor his memory at the same time. I do know the pain of watching a loved one go through the stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, though…and it ain’t pretty. One of my goals this year is to make a difference for that cause – contribute to increased research, awareness, education, treatment options, support for caregivers…That’s why I took the initiative to gently prod the MN Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association to get their charity team established for the Twin Cities Marathon this year. I sort a lot of things out in my head when I run, and sometimes it takes a lot of miles to make sense of those things. It’s been five years, but I’m not done sorting this one out yet, and I don’t know if I ever will be. But please click on this link to see my ALZ-Stars fundraising page.
Support me if you can. Donate in my Dad’s memory. Generously. 🙂 Help make a difference for the people affected by Alzheimer’s Disease and their caregivers. This one’s for you, Dad…and you’ll be on my mind and in my heart every step and every mile of the way.