a letter from my father

I spent an hour with my father at the nursing home last night. I arrived just before his dinner was served, and I knew he would need help with his meal when it arrived. He can’t use a knife anymore, and he doesn’t seem to recall how best to use a fork. He scoops his food with the fork, when he should be stabbing it. He rarely uses the spoon, even when a spoon would be best. It’s a messy ordeal, but I can make it easier for him if I’m there to cut up his food into bite-sized pieces.

nursing home dinner

Using his fork and a butter knife, I sawed through the Hawaiian chicken – tough, overcooked chicken breast adorned with a pineapple ring and maraschino cherry – while he waited in silence. He doesn’t make conversation any more. He barely speaks to me. In the last three or four weeks, he’s stopped asking about his grandchildren or about my husband. (He used to always ask about Sam.) He used to ask me about any trips I might be taking or about our favorite college football team, the Gators, or about my mother. Lately, he only asks me to bring him water. And one evening last week, he asked me for help.

“Help you with what, Dad?” I asked.

“Help me. Fix it.” He reached out and took my arm in his trembling hand.

“Fix what, Dad?”

“Fix whatever is wrong with me,” he said. “Everything.”

I put my hand over his own warm, sun-spotted one. I ran my thumb over his thumb, the shorter one. Back in 2006, when my daughter was just a few days old, he severed the tip off of it in a wood saw accident while making a cradle for her. He was never able to have the tip reattached, and his thumb was forever shorter – a badge of his love for his first granddaughter.  I didn’t say anything to him, just squeezed his hand a bit tighter. He looked away, shaking his head as if it were hopeless.

Which it is –  hopeless. That’s the thing about dementia.

Later, when I was home, I opened a letter my mother sent me. It was a letter she had found, from my father to me. He had written it in 1982, when he was working in Puerto Rico, building and installing stained glass windows for a cathedral in San Juan. I was nine years old, the same age my daughter is now.

I don’t remember what prompted him to write this letter to me, but I can guess, based on the content. I had a crush on a boy in my class, probably not reciprocated, and I firmly believed that my parents – my father, in particular – didn’t understand the depth of what I was going through. Or so I assumed.

Reading this letter last night flooded me with memories. It was good to hear my dad’s voice again. His true voice, before dementia stole it away from him.

I miss him.

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Dear Merry Jennifer,

It is Sunday morning in Puerto Rico and I was thinking about you and I decided to write you a letter. I want you to know that I love you very much.

I have been trying to remember how it was to be nine years old. When I was nine years old, I was a smart city kid who thought I knew everything I needed to know about everything. I had a girl friend that I loved and I never agreed with my parents. I saw no reason to do as they told me and constantly argued with them. We had no money for anything and I had a 5 year old brother and a one year old brother. we lived in a small apartment in a city housing development. You would call it a slum. The next time we are in Louisville I will take you to see my old neighborhood.

My girlfriend was a girl named Kay and she was as smart as I was. She knew everything she needed to know about everything. She was my best pal and we were going to grow up and get married and be rich and famous. I am sure I loved her as much as you love Chris. So you see I do know how you feel. As I grew older and Kay grew older we still loved each other. We were always in touch with each other even though we grew up and married other people. I look back on our relationship and realize that although we loved each other it was not the kind of love that means getting married. You must understand that people always change. Your mother loved somebody when she was nine years old and probably planned to get married to her boyfriend at nine years old too. I changed, your mother changed, and you, too, will change. There is nothing wrong with being in love, in fact it is great. I am in love with your mother and it is a different and better kind of love than a nine year old can have.

I want you to know that I want you to know love and that I do not want you to think I do not understand because I do understand. I want you to realize that I have been ten years old, twenty, thirty, and forty, and you have not. 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.

I hope you understand that I do not mean to make fun of you and Chris. The only reason I do or seem to is because I have been where you are and realize that you have a long way to go.

I love you Merry Jennifer, my special little girl.

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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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