The following was my first “paid” article. It’s a tribute to my father, who died in 2004 at the age of 80 from a 15-year battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. This first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in June of 1997.
There is an image I have captured in my mind. It is so vivid. I’m in my car, in front of the home my parents have shared for most of their 45 married years.
Mom and Dad are standing on the front porch. From the street, I can see the huge eucalyptus tree in their backyard, silhouetted against the evening sky. It is gently swaying in the warm breeze, while the full moon illuminates their manicured lawn. They are smiling and waving to me as I drive away after a visit.
Now that Mom lives alone and Dad is in an Alzheimer’s nursing home, that scenario has changed. But it never does in my mind. My whole adult life, my parents always stood on the porch to wave good-bye when I left. It could be pouring down rain, but they would still stand in the open doorway together. I always looked back and returned their waves.
Sometimes on humid summer nights, Dad would walk me to my car. Often, he would stop along the path to grab the hose and give one last soaking to his precious lawn. The crickets would be harmonizing in full chorus and the dusk air always smelled of sweet honeysuckle.
When the cows from the nearby ranch were coming over the hill toward our house, and the wind shifted, we’d have an interesting blend of scents. The cows have been replaced with condominiums now, but that familiar smell never fails to trigger fond memories.
On most nights, after 5:00 p.m., Dad had a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other. When he watered the garden, the cigarette hung limply from the corner of his mouth – the hose in one hand and his “libation” in the other. There was simply no choosing between his vodka gimlet – with a splash of Rose’s Lime Juice – and that ever-present cigarette.
Soon after entering the nursing home, Dad forgot how to smoke. Sometimes I still expect to see that familiar pack of More Filters peeking out of his shirt pocket. On occasion, we have brought him his favorite burgundy to enjoy with dinner, but his medication generally doesn’t accommodate alcohol.
I picture Dad, on those distant nights, sweeping the hose back and forth across the lawn. He is wearing the red and tan swimming trunks he loved so much and practically lived in all summer long.
On those warm evenings, Dad would be shirtless, the gold medallion around his neck lost in his chest hair. He loved that piece of jewelry he bought in Greece. It represented the Wise Owl of Athens, and was said to bring good luck.
I never saw Dad without that piece of gold, or when fashion demanded, the silver St. Christopher medal Mom had gotten blessed in Church. On back was inscribed, “Bill, All My Love, Loretta.” He spent so many hours methodically rubbing it between his fingers while he watched television, that old St. Chris just about vanished.
In the nursing home, Dad can’t wear any of his favorite jewelry, like the fancy pinkie ring made with the diamonds from his mother’s watch, or his treasured retirement watch from the city of San Rafael. And although he wears a plastic alarm bracelet to alert the staff if he wanders away, he doesn’t seem to notice it. But Mom gave him an Alzheimer’s Safe-Return bracelet so he can still enjoy the feel of jewelry on his wrist.
Besides the flashy jewelry, Dad loved to dress sharply. His idea of a great-looking outfit was gray slacks, burgundy shirt and white tie and shoes. Dad was feeling pretty hot when he wore those white loafers. With that striking silver hair atop his solid 5-foot 9-inch frame, and those handsome golden-brown eyes, Dad always managed to turn a few heads. His friends jokingly referred to him as “The Gray Fox.”
Giving some of Dad’s wardrobe to charity was difficult. So much of his personality was evident in what he wore. At home, he preferred T-shirts and powder blue Levi jeans. He wore them until the denim became soft and thin as old sheets. Mom insisted on buying him new ones, but Dad never threw away his old favorites.
Today, Dad’s attire consists mainly of sweatpants and button-down shirts because they make it easier for his aides to dress him. His loafers have been replaced with Reeboks, to accommodate the miles he wanders up and down the corridors each day.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see Dad on the dance floor, dipping and swaying around the room with Mom, that constant smile on his face. I could never keep up with his creative dance moves, but when I would step on his toes, he would only laugh.
Laughing came easily to Dad. I remember how successful he was with his daily challenge to make at least one person laugh with him. Having been one of his prime targets, I feel partially responsible for his having achieved that goal.
Dad’s easy-going, fun-loving manner was contagious. He always knew how to have a good time. Whether Mom and he were traveling with their group of longtime friends, or just taking a Sunday drive with my brother, sister, and me – he never failed to enjoy himself.
The things Dad loved most, though, were the simplest. He was happiest at home puttering in the yard. On summer afternoons, we would line up to challenge him in a game of ping-pong. The loser had to make a running dive into our Dough-Boy pool. The hotter it got outside, the more he seemed to lose. During the summer months, Dad lived in that pool.
Most of my memories of Dad come to life in particular scents and sounds. Pine reminds me of the summers we spent at Lake Tahoe. Oddly enough, gasoline odors bring me back to our boat, “All Hours,” and to Lake Berryessa, where we spent most Sundays from July to September.
The smell of freshly mowed lawn transports me back to Saturday mornings, watching cartoons, while Dad pushed the old mower out front. The scent of lawn clippings filtered through the screen door into our living room. It blended with the aroma of the Linguisa and eggs Mom was cooking. Giants baseball, with Lon Simmons, blared from the radio on the porch.
Now, at family events, I hear echoes of the sound of the knife on Dad’s wine glass when he clanged the goblet before one of his many toasts. I can still taste those gin fizzes he concocted for us on Christmas morning. I smell the smoky barbecue that filled the backyard with the scent of one of his many inventive marinades. And I always picture him wearing those sunglasses he rarely took off.
I think the trait I respected most in Dad was his ability to accept people as they were. Growing up in the ‘60s, I was a die-hard tomboy. When I wasn’t playing tackle football, I was climbing trees or playing King of the Hill with my brother and the neighborhood boys.
Nothing was more painful to me than playing with dolls. But instead of insisting I behave more like my sister, Dad played catch with me after work and gave me a train set for Christmas.
I never knew Dad to have an enemy, or even to say a harsh word about anyone. He was compassionate and forgiving, sensitive and kind. I admired his character. If success can be measured by the love of many close friends, a generous heart and a positive attitude, then Dad was the most successful man I’ve known.
Today, even as his disease progresses – gradually taking a little more of him away – his innate spirit remains. Alzheimer’s hasn’t yet taken his smile.
Dad use to call me sweetheart, but since he can rarely speak now, he mostly just stares and smiles. Sometimes when I’m feeding him, I look for that spark of recognition in his eyes. Occasionally, he’ll put a few words together and catch me off guard. Once last month during lunch, he looked up from his plate and with absolute recognition exclaimed, “I’ll be damned!” when he saw me sitting there.
When my visits at the nursing home are over, Dad doesn’t watch me leave. He’s usually headed for the nearest bedroom window to look out into an unfamiliar yard. But that isn’t how I’ll remember our goodbyes.
Instead, I think back to that evening in April. It was the night before Dad left their home for the last time. I helped Mom pack and label his clothes for the nursing home. Dad stood at the patio window, looking out at the backyard deck where his cherished pool had been. When we were through packing and I headed down the path toward my car, I could barely breathe.
As I pulled away from the curb, I was surprised to finally notice the empty space in the sky behind their home, where the monstrous eucalyptus tree once stood. Then I remembered that a winter storm had uprooted it’s massive frame.
The front lawn was gone now too, long ago replaced with maintenance-free rock and mounds of drought-resistant plants. Spring was in the air, and so was that familiar scent of honeysuckle.
Mom and Dad stepped out onto the porch and I saw that she was holding his hand. He had a big smile on his face and they were both waving.