losing my father

I had a free hour on Tuesday, around lunchtime, so I decided to visit my father in his nursing home. My father’s facility is within walking distance of the hospital that I work in. The proximity of the nursing home to my work, to me, is both a blessing and a curse. Some days I can’t decide which it is.

I stopped by my hospital’s gift shop on my way to visit Dad. I planned to bring him a gift, maybe some candy or a muffin. In years past, I might have selected a paperback, a newspaper, or a book of crossword puzzles and brainteasers. He still has his vision – with the help of bifocals – but he can no longer process the words that he reads. The man who once devoured several books a week – especially anything written by Ken Follett, John Jakes, or Louis L’Amour — can’t comprehend a restaurant menu, much less a newspaper or magazine. After searching the shelves in the small gift shop filled with flowers and balloons and knickknacks, I selected a stuffed animal – a cuddly spotted leopard — and a bag of salted peanuts.

dad's gift

When I entered his darkened room on the second floor of the nursing home, he was lying flat in his bed, wearing a hospital gown. His eyes were closed, and he wore a pained expression. He either sensed my presence or heard me pull up a chair, and he opened his eyes. He looked startled and panicked.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” he said. There was urgency in his voice and he reached a hand out to grab mine. I raised the head of his bed some, so he could be closer to me.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What do you think has happened?”

“I was in an accident, a head on collision with someone,” he said. “But I don’t know what’s wrong. They won’t tell me. Something is wrong here.” He touched the right side of his forehead with his hand.

I reassured him that he was okay, that he had not been in an accident. That he must have been dreaming about an accident from the past or something he’d seen on television. He looked at me, then beyond me, and finally he shook his head as if to shake off the cobwebs coating his memories.

“Here, Dad, I’ve brought you a gift,” I showed him the stuffed animal and the peanuts. He took the leopard from me and hugged it, his eyes bright. I placed the peanuts on his tray table, but within his reach.

He petted the soft toy, running his fingers over the pink nose and glass eyes. He hugged it again, then set it next to the bag of peanuts. He turned to look at me.

“How long have I been here?” he asked.

“Almost three months, Dad.” But it seems like forever. It seems like it will be forever.

“Why? What’s wrong with me?” he asked, his voice filled with equal parts despair and confusion. “I just wish I knew what was wrong with me.”

“It’s your brain, Dad,” I explained gently. “It’s like Alzheimer’s. You have something like Alzheimer’s, like your mom had. Do you remember that she used to wander? And that’s why she was in a nursing home? It’s something like that, just like what she had.”

He looked at me in disbelief. He didn’t say anything right away. He turned away from me, and then turned back, his greenish-hazel eyes locking with mine.

“I hate that,” he said.

My eyes filled with tears. “Me too, Dad. I hate it too. We all hate it.”

We sat quietly for a few minutes. I stared at the television that sits on his dresser. The television is eternally tuned to the same channel since his remote control went missing a few weeks ago. I can’t tell you how many old reruns of Friends I have watched since May. That day it was on a cartoon – maybe King of the Hill or Family Guy? It was obnoxious and not something he ever would have watched.

“How old am I?” he asked.

This was the first he’d ever asked me that. Normally his memory for the past is very strong, even now. I told him that he was seventy-seven. That he will be seventy-eight in December.

“I’m not done yet,” he said, his voice cracking, full of emotion. He broke down in tears.

“I know, Dad,” I said. “I know you’re not.”

We held hands for a while. I watched the scenes from Family Guy – or maybe King of the Hill – scroll across the television screen. He didn’t say anything for a while, just stared at the television and at the open door to his room. I don’t think he was seeing either. He was in his head, remembering…or maybe forgetting.

He gave my hand a squeeze and then let go. He took the stuffed leopard in his hands and hugged it to his chest, stroking the animal’s back. He reached for the bag of peanuts.

“Let’s have a snack,” he said, a smile lighting up his face. “Want some?”

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36 Responses to “a letter from my father”

  1. Elise — November 20, 2013 @ 6:38 pm

    From the bottom of my heart, thank you for sharing this beautiful letter from your father.

  2. Macaroni Mama — November 20, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

    Very touching, Merry Jennifer.

  3. Janis — November 20, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    Sweetie,
    I am sitting here with tears streaming down my face. What a gift to have that letter. I lost my dad when I was 23 and had a 6 month old. Your pop is lucky that you are there for him like he was for you.

    Thanks so much for sharing this part of your life with us.

  4. Jessica L. — November 20, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

    This brought tears to my eyes. I know it’s from your father, and not mine, but I read it in my own dad’s voice. It is so incredibly special that you have this, especially now that your father isn’t fully with you anymore.

    Thank you, so much, for sharing this with us all.

  5. Kim Foster — November 20, 2013 @ 8:00 pm

    That he wrote this letter and said the things he said, the way he considered you, is so incredible. What a wonderful letter to have now when he can no longer say these things to you. This is his heart.

    This is the man you have to hold onto and remember.

    love you honey. xo

  6. Kristen — November 20, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

    This “If you were going to take a trip you would want to have a map. That is what your mother and I want to be for you – a map of life. I do not want you to follow our map but I do want you to know where the detours are and avoid the washed out roads and the dangerous roads through the rough neighborhoods.” LOVED that (and the whole letter). Much love to your family… I too wish you could fix it, but admire you for your loving, gentle, kind nature.

  7. Gail — November 20, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

    Thank you for sharing such a deeply personal part of your dad with us. This is probably one of the most beautiful letters from a father to his daughter I’ve ever read.

  8. Linda McIntyre — November 20, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

    How wonderful, so special, thanks for sharing. I am so touched.

  9. zorra — November 20, 2013 @ 8:28 pm

    Thank you for posting this beautiful letter. I walked with my dear father through his dementia, too. No, you can’t fix it, but you are there, which matters every day. Best wishes to you.

  10. Katie — November 20, 2013 @ 9:52 pm

    I should know by now to not read your blog… You always no how to bring a pregnant lady to tears! Thank you for sharing your story and letter from your dad. So sweet!

  11. Ree — November 20, 2013 @ 11:26 pm

    My sister Betsy shared this with me tonight and we both sobbed. It’s beautiful and we thank you so much for sharing it.

  12. Patty Hetrick — November 21, 2013 @ 12:41 am

    How sweet of your father to take the time to try to explain love to you at such an impressionable age. As always my heart is breaking for you and your family at this difficult time. Although your dad may be lacking the memories, you have so many of your own to carry him with you. Prayers, MJ.

  13. Joan B — November 21, 2013 @ 4:56 am

    Wow, what a fabulous father you have. I am sooo sorry he is failing now and in a nursing home. that is so hard. Good for you for being there for him. He needs you now more than you will ever know. Hugs

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  15. Deanna — November 21, 2013 @ 9:59 am

    Thank You for sharing such a special moment.

  16. DairyStateMom — November 21, 2013 @ 10:06 am

    Thank you for sharing your father’s wonderful, heartfelt letter. I hope that re-reading it helps you with the monstrous disease that is dementia. My dad had Alzheimer’s, and your description of dinner with your dad brought back many memories for me. Much love, and many blessings, to you and your father.

  17. Lori @ RecipeGirl — November 21, 2013 @ 10:19 am

    Thanks for sharing this with us… brings back memories of my own father and when his health was failing. It’s such a tough thing to go through. I know you’ll treasure this letter… and other memories just like it.

  18. Laura — November 21, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    So beautiful & touching. Thank you for sharing this precious letter with us! I’m so sorry for what your dad is going through–I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for you and your family.

  19. cherie — November 21, 2013 @ 11:05 am

    what a beautiful gift that letter is – I’m so very happy you have it

  20. Di — November 21, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    Your heart must be broken with longing for the Dad you have lost and will continue to loose. How bitter sweet that he still knows you as a “fixer”; however painful it is and will be for you, I wish you peace through this final journey with your beloved father so you may be able to find joy in being present for whatever presence of mind and spirit he still has. While I remember how emotionally depleting it can be, I would give my right arm and then some to be able to help usher my Mom or Dad all over again. While I don’t miss them all the time, when I do it is with much of the same intensity as when they first departed. And so I wish you and yours loving presence throughout the holiday and beyond.

  21. mimi — November 21, 2013 @ 11:22 am

    wow. i have no words.

  22. Flavia — November 21, 2013 @ 11:32 am

    Dear Merry-Jennifer, Although I am desperately behind in my blog reading, your blog is one of the ones I keep at the top of my list of favorites in order to stay current on your posts.

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. At the beginning of October, Peter and I took in my great-aunt Giovanna who became ill and was hospitalized while visiting us here in Houston. My great-aunt lives in Washington, DC, has never been married and has always lived alone. Because of her advanced age (she is 83) and a host of health ailments (which she was not managing well on her own), Peter and I could not see her go back to DC, still weak, with over a dozen medications to take. Sadly, my mother and aunt decided they wanted nothing to do with my great-aunt Giovanna (their aunt) or with helping us nurse her back to health in our home. Instead, they went on vacation.

    Although having my great-aunt live with us is temporary (she will be going to live with her nieces and nephews in Italy in January), this has been one of the hardest things Peter and I have done. The first 2-3 weeks were the hardest. I cried every day. I have become mildly depressed from the exhaustion, the worry, the stress and the fact that our life came to a screeching halt in more ways than one. We do not see our friends anymore, we rarely see Peter’s family members or our sweet 5 year-old nephew. Social outings don’t happen anymore. Errands have to be crammed into weekends or in short spurts during the week so my great-aunt doesn’t stay home alone too long. During the week when Peter is at work, I take care of my great-aunt alone and essentially do the work of 5-6 people.

    One of the hardest and saddest things to deal with day-in and day-out is the fact that my great-aunt’s short term memory is failing. Although it is not serious like your father’s dementia, it has been a true test of my patience and compassion. I’m ashamed to admit that I have had weak moments of total selfishness where I have cried because I’m tired of repeating myself and reminding her. I’m also ashamed that I have complained about wanting my life back and this huge responsibility taken off of my back. I also have moments of deep fear that I will get sick and not be able to continue to care for my great-aunt until January.

    Caring for my great-aunt has been a lesson in patience, humility, compassion, endurance and learning to let go (not easy for a Type A like myself)–traits that I know I possess, but always need to work on. I’ve hated myself for having such selfish and self-centered feelings during the exhausting moments, but I suppose that makes me human.

    Thank you for sharing such a personal and touching moment from your life. You are blessed to have been raised by such a compassionate father (I wasn’t blessed in this department, sadly). I believe that although dementia is stealing his memory, the love he has for you, Sam, your mom and the kids remains in his heart.

    Prayers for you,
    Flavia

  23. another beautiful MJ. the letter from your dad is too precious and very important life lessons. XOXO

  24. Lillian — November 21, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

    How wonderful that he wrote the letter and that your mother saved it and sent it to you.
    Lillian

  25. Melanie — November 21, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    Merry – What a sweet letter and memento to have forever of your father’s love for you. He was so wise to have reached out you and met you where you stood. He didn’t judge and he didn’t belittle. I love his analogy to a road map. So smart! I’m sorry you’re experiencing your dad in such a different way now. It has to be so painful. What a thoughtful, caring, loving man. You clearly engender those same traits. Hugs.

  26. Laura — November 21, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

    That is a beautiful letter. You are a lucky daughter. How generous of you to share that beautiful letter. Thank you and hang in there with your dad. You’re sharing an important lesson with your kids.

  27. DessertForTwo — November 21, 2013 @ 6:27 pm

    I’m a little teary reading this, but I’m so glad I did.

    Love to you,
    -Christina

  28. Eileen — November 21, 2013 @ 8:40 pm

    I am so glad your mom sent this letter with you. It’s affirmation that your dad has always loved you with all his heart.

  29. Katie — November 21, 2013 @ 11:16 pm

    MJ,

    I hope you truly understand that the world is a better place because of you, your parents, and someday , your children. I know I don’t get to tell you at work, but I truly admire you and I am blessed to know you. Thanks for sharing this. It is beautiful.

    Katie

  30. Carlinne @Cook with 2 Chicks — November 22, 2013 @ 9:25 am

    As always, beautiful. I love the letter from your father and am so happy you have a keepsake of his real voice.

  31. Paula — November 24, 2013 @ 11:21 pm

    To have shared with us what a caring, sensitive and loving father your Dad is and in such a deeply personal manner as you have in this post is nothing short of humbling for us, your readers. He loves you so Merry Jennifer, then, now and always.

  32. Sally — November 25, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

    The whole letter is wonderful, but I especially like the paragraph about maps. Sometimes the maps we give our children also show where not to go.

  33. Cheryl Arkison — November 25, 2013 @ 11:25 pm

    Smart man, your Dad.

  34. Jenn — November 26, 2013 @ 11:30 pm

    MJ – thank you for sharing this. Reading this brought tears to my eyes, especially watching my grandparents slowly slip away from who they once were. How special to have this letter preserved for you, and to have such a wise dad!

  35. Abhi — November 29, 2013 @ 3:39 am

    Hi Merry,

    This is such a beautiful and sweet post. Thanks for sharing. I practise Buddhism and the most important lesson i learnt is to have immense gratitude for our parents. You’re really lucky to be able to care for him. It’s brought a huge smile to my face and tears to my eyes. Hope your dad remains happy each day.

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