Seventeen years ago today my dad died.
I still miss him -- and sometimes it's still hard.
But the dad who died then wasn't the dad I knew, the one who raised me, loved me, played with me. The one who went out of his way to make Santa real, building a nasty metal dollhouse in the middle of the night so it would be there on Christmas.
He wasn't the one who sat and watched MSU sports with me on TV -- or for that matter, cartoons, parades, or Dick Van Dyke.
He didn't go to the beach anymore -- even trips to the lake became difficult for him.
The cottage he loved had become a challenging place, with its unpredictable climate. And on one of our last trips, when we stopped at a rest area accessible from both directions, he came out the wrong side and couldn't find me. He was terrified. I wasn't used to seeing Dad terrified.
The dad who left on that cold December day so long ago wasn't the one who was fun at the holiday table.
And he wasn't the one who happily bombed around in his little red Tempo -- I drove that car for several years after he died and I had totaled my station wagon. By the time I got it, it was a dicey little car, but he loved it to pieces, and even when he couldn't drive, had no intentions of letting it go!
I remember the thoughtful and creative things my dad did for people -- like making this gingerbread man into which he stuffed some earrings for my mom on Christmas. During that period we had an "original gift wrapping" competition. Mom had been making gingerbread strings like a crazy lady with a smaller version of this guy. He stands atop one of my trees.
I remember my dad loving his ham radio and teaching me Morse code before I knew the alphabet -- I wish I could remember it. (His ham radio kept him in touch with friends even during his hardest times while he was still living independently.)
I remember the stories people told me at the funeral home, most touched by our first African American neighbor who said my dad was the first person who came to their door to welcome them. And others, who told me about kind things he done for them.
I remember my dad as a fisherman on our lake, often capturing big bass.
The small tree in my bedroom -- my "Dad Tree" -- focuses most on this part of his life.
Those later years were really hard -- and they were hard for us both. More nights than not included a stop at dad's apartment on my way home from work with a prescription or to help him with dinner. His attitude changed -- he was anxious, nervous, and (with some good reason) became a hypochondriac. After he accidentally overdosed his medication, he began taking copious notes on every moment of his day. They were so sad, I couldn't keep them after he died.
He wasn't the guy I want to remember.
My heart goes out to others who are dealing with aging parents who have become more challenging. Face it, we're all going to become "more challenging" as we age, as our bodies go head to head with chronic or catastrophic illness, or even just a bad spell. We'll needier, emotionally and physically, and perhaps for even daily needs like getting to appointments.
And it's hard to be the caretaker. I think they all deserve medals. I know I did -- and I know I couldn't have done it without the selfless help of friends who wrapped themselves around me and my dad and helped us through, listened to us, were there.
I'll always miss you, Dad. As much as I want to, I can't forget those tough times, although I remember the others with far more fondness. But you and mom taught me well. And I won't forget that.
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