For as long as I can remember my father would open the Atlanta Constitution, fold it back on itself, press the edge flat, and then fold it in half again, isolating the Sunday New York Times Crossword. He’d glance at his watch, pick up a pen, and begin at 1 Across and continue through 60 Down or 90 Down or however many acrosses and downs there were until letters in his distinctive handwriting filled the white squares. Then, he’d set aside the puzzle and check his watch. He never doubted he could finish the puzzle. His self-imposed and silent challenge was finishing in less than an hour.
Three letter words like nee, tar, or ova, obscure references to Greek gods or long-dead foreign leaders, and scientific abbreviations were once as familiar to him as his own name. He earned his extensive vocabulary through a lifetime of reading, whether the news, select periodicals, or a parade of mysteries and thrillers by his favorite authors, and by practice, often through crossword puzzles. And yes, he was the stereotypical father who when asked the meaning of a word answered with, “Look it up in the dictionary.”
In his eighties, my father taught himself to play the violin, the saxophone, and the clarinet, the latter as a tribute to his music idol Benny Goodman. He was a child of Swing and the Big Band era and he and my mother danced to Sinatra at home on quiet winter nights.
He played golf with a passion his game did not deserve. He turned wood and created salad bowls, soup bowls, lamp bases, and candlesticks; and his creations populated every shelf and coffee table in his house.
That was before.
When my mother’s health failed, he gave up golf and turning wood to become her caregiver.
After she died, he moved to an apartment and lived on his own. He enjoyed the company of a handful of other nonagenarians. Most often, though, he sat alone in his apartment reading Elmer Leonard, Michael Connelly, or George V. Higgins or watching his favorite teams on television, the Bruins, Red Sox, Celtics, or the Patriots.
When his hearing failed, my father stopped listening to music. Sinatra’s velvet soft voice with its perfect pitch and tonal range eluded him and the lyrics touched a still raw part of his heart.
When he added a fourth dent to the bumper of his champagne-colored Jaguar, my father stopped driving, a devastating sacrifice but one he bore knowing his reflexes were failing and he could do someone harm.
Not long after that he gave up crossword puzzles. “They’ve passed me by,” he told me. “I don’t care what Bart Simpson’s uncle’s first name is. I don’t even care who Bart Simpson is.”
Then, a year ago at 95 a stroke left him partly paralyzed and with advancing dementia.
He moved to a long-term care facility where he is today and where he claws through the dictionary in his head to find the words he wants to say.
Unless he is confused or angry with a caregiver, he rarely speaks in complete sentences. And he curses often, something he would never have done in polite company or any company—once long ago asserting cursing was a sign of a poor vocabulary.
“What the hell is going on here?” is one of his milder refrains when he wakes from a nap in his wheelchair and finds himself in the common room surrounded by strangers or if someone bumps his foot or handles him too roughly.
Still, with his engaging smile, the staff have fallen under his spell. When he wants to, he can charm the pants off you.
But the facility, as nice as it is, is not a place he wants to be. I know that. We spoke many times about the end of life and ending one’s own life long before he came here. But he lost the ability to understand the difference between living and his life and the will to take matters into his own hands.
Ah, but some would say, he enjoys sitting in the sun and feeling its warmth on the back of his neck. He marvels at the humming birds as they zip in and away from a bird feeder filled with sticky red nectar. And he smiles as he munches an oatmeal cookie each afternoon.
This is an argument I cannot win. And so I surrender and bear witness to his slow but progressive falling apart.
For now, I am thankful he remembers my name and recognizes my face. I don’t know how much longer he will.
With his memory failing, he gave up reading and lost interest in sports—though mentioning the Patriots and Tom Brady, who will forever be innocent of all wrong doing, can bring a smile to his lips. As does, hearing the Cubbies won the World Series.
Mostly, today he finds comfort in sleep and safety in speaking in fragments or single words that disguise how profound his loss of cognition is.
Good. I’m fine. Yes. No. Be Careful. These are the words or phrases he utters most often.
“How do you feel today?” Good. “Are you having any pain?” No. I’m fine. “Would you like a piece of blueberry pie?” Yes. “I have to go now, but I’ll see you on Wednesday.” Be careful.
His smile and this thimbleful of words are all that remain. I suspect he will soon give them up too, leaving only a heartbeat, a last breath, and then silence.
I write this today, before that moment when I know words will fail me. I write this so that I will remember these pieces of my father. And from time to time in that not so distant future, I will reassemble the pieces and make my father whole again, if only in my memory.