Monday, January 26, 2009

Memory Lane

I have a lot of memories of my dad that need an outlet, so my posts will likely be more frequent for a while.

Today's date--Jan 26--kept sticking in my mind. It's Republic Day in India, but that wasn't what was flagging my memory. Then I remembered that it is two years ago today that Dad returned to the U.S. after his time with us there.

Afterwards, the apartment felt very empty for a long time, not only because he had left, but Ganesh, his nurse and friend, was gone as well. Though my sister-in-law was there until spring--and that softened the blow a lot-- it was still much lonelier at the dinner table, bereft of Dad's unique sense of humor and cheerful spirit. Sometimes I would go into his room--his clothes no longer there but books on the shelf awaiting my own move back to the U.S. at the end of that year--and feel as if someone had died. In reality, I think this was what psychologists call "anticipatory grieving"--a kind of precursor of death when a person you are close to is in a slow and inevitable decline. Of course, at the time I had no idea how long it would be--despite his dementia, Dad was still relatively healthy. But the feelings now remind me of what I experienced then.

Probably the hardest thing for me these past several days since his death has been not going to the nursing home. It was just something I did this past year--it was always at the back of my mind as a daily "to-do"-and on busy days I even wrote it in my planner. I varied the time of my visits, but the period between 3-6 in the afternoon tended to be the most usual for me. That time is now also the most difficult to get through. Sometimes I have caught myself thinking that I need to stop by--only to be taken up short by the reality of Dad's death, and experience that awful, sinking feeling that is so characteristic of a fresh grief.

Despite these feelings, I am much luckier than many who lose a parent. It is hard to begrudge death to someone who has lived a long and full life, and whose final years have seen steady decline in mental and physical function. Rather, grief is mixed with something almost akin to joy--although no longer seen, the person is recovered, and gone to a better place. My grief is also relatively simple, without the complication of tangled emotions, anger, disappointment, or having lost a parent without warning or at a young age. But I have realized that it is also less complicated because I find myself relatively free of regret--a terrible emotion to combine with feelings of loss. And I think that I have my dad to thank for this, albeit in a strange way. Without intending it, he taught me a great deal about the nature of grief.

Dad was only nine when his mother died suddenly after a short illness, and though he spoke of her--more than 70 years after her death, he said that he could still vividly see her face in his mind's eye---it was with a kind of philosophical distance. But his father--my grandfather--lived a very long life, dying a month short of his 96th birthday, and they were extremely close. My grandfather was a gentle and tender-hearted soul and after the death of my grandmother, my dad's stepmother, he lived with my parents for nearly ten years before his own death. When he passed away, my dad--then only a few years older than I am now-- was filled with remorse. No one who knew Dad would have doubted his love or dedication to my grandfather especially during his final years. But despite being told this by many people, including my mother and me, he was quite inconsolable.

People who knew my father only in his later years, his personality softened by dementia, saw a man very much like my memories of my granddad--sweet and gentle, and full of kindness. But in his prime, Dad could be short tempered and impatient, and he had a decidedly directive--some might say controlling--nature. I think it pained him immensely to see my grandfather losing his physical and mental abilities, and his and my mother's lives were also constrained by their duties as caregivers especially in my grandfather's last years. These pressures sometimes caused Dad to be sharp and overbearing, and when my grandfather passed away, he deeply regretted those occasions. "I was too hard on Pa," he would say to me; "he couldn't help what was happening. I should have been more patient with him." I know that this remorse added considerably to his grief.

I can't say that I thought of this consciously when Dad grew older and became less able to look after himself, but I think now that it must have worked on me in some invisible way. My grandfather never approached Dad's degree of dementia--two years before his death he was still using words like "loquacious" and "supple" in conversation--but both body and mind were in decline and the sad part was that he was both aware of it and cognizant of the stress he was causing my father. "Joe barks at me," he would say, "but I know he doesn't mean it." There was only one time that I can recall that I lost patience with Dad --he had messed up something in the kitchen a year or so before we went to India---and I felt terrible afterwards that I had "barked" at him in the same way he had done with his father so many years before. At that point I did recall his remorse after my grandfather passed, and resolved to try not to give myself the same punishment. Part of my determination to take him to India was my belief--shared by Marty-- that being with us, whatever the risks, would far outweigh any "danger" he might be in living in a developing country. As it turned out, he got better care than we could have hoped for even in the United States, and we had the pleasure of being with him and seeing him make new friends. My main regret after he left was that he might have stayed there a bit longer. But then Marty reminds me of the difficult journey back on the plane, and I know that we were close to the right time.

Of course, if I had these years to do over, I would surely have spent more time with him, talked to him more, and been less distracted, especially in India. On one level I know that his dementia became so advanced that he probably wouldn't have known the difference. But I would have. Still, I am thankful that I learned to anticipate the grief that I now feel--and somehow understood in time that it is hard enough without adding the sharp sting of remorse.

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